OU football: Sooners could be headed for a carousel at RB in foreseeable future

Oklahoma running back Trey Sermon carries the ball against UCLA on Saturday at Owen Field. Sermon is the prime candidate to receive the bulk of the carries after Rodney Anderson's season-ending knee injury. (Kyle Phillips / The Transcript)

NORMAN, Okla. — Some Oklahoma players learned the severity of Rodney Anderson’s injury while Saturday’s game against UCLA was still being played.

“I was on the sideline,” left guard Ben Powers said. “We were just so sad. We were so sad to hear that.”

The Sooners polished off a 28-point victory over the Bruins as more details about Anderson’s hurt knee became clear. He was later declared out for the season, news that hit Trey Sermon especially hard.

The sophomore running back has spent most of the past year absorbing knowledge from OU’s leading rusher, and their relationship had strengthened in recent months.

“I mean, I was devastated,” Sermon said.

Anderson’s severe knee injury against UCLA — OU coach Lincoln Riley wouldn’t disclose details beyond that — affected his teammates emotionally, but also figures to alter an offense that reached high gear once Anderson emerged midway through the 2017 season.

He exploded for 1,079 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns over the final eight games, going from rarely used to heavily leaned upon. In the process OU found a new identity in the wake of a devastating loss to Iowa State, where the fifth-ranked Sooners play Saturday (11 a.m., ABC).

The Cyclones (0-1) will test OU’s running back depth, as well as Riley’s comment last week that the Sooners probably “have more run game than anyone else in the country right now.”

How Riley and running backs coach Jay Boulware sort through that depth is their latest challenge.

Sermon, senior Marcelias Sutton, redshirt freshman Kennedy Brooks and freshman T.J. Pledger will all receive carries until one of them secures a lead role, Riley said. It’s reminiscent of the running back carousel from 2017 when three different backs made starts until Anderson secured the role.

“If all those guys are performing well but nobody is really totally out-playing the others, I’m sure we’ll play a bunch of those guys,” Riley said. “If we get a guy that gets hot or starts playing at a high level, we’ll certainly feed him more reps, and with that, more opportunities.”

The odds-on favorite to do that is Sermon, who rushed for 744 yards and five touchdowns last season. He’s the only running back on OU’s roster to carry at least 20 times in a collegiate game, as Anderson did five times a year ago.

Riley put the ball in Sermon’s hands — not Baker Mayfield’s throwing arm — in the fourth quarter of a narrow win at Baylor, and Sermon responded with 148 yards and two TDs all in the final period. His brute run style ultimately became a nice complement to Anderson’s burst.

Whether Sermon’s attributes translate into a lead-back role is to be determined. He’s the presumed starter against Iowa State, but as of last week he hadn’t separated himself from Sutton as No. 2 on the depth chart. Their names were separated by an “or” on the two-deep against UCLA.

Sutton, a junior college transfer from Lackawanna College, is fully recovered from a foot injury he sustained in the 2017 spring game. He says that slowed him down last season.

“I feel different,” Sutton said. “I feel a little bit better, more comfortable to be honest. The speed of the game has slowed down.”

Sermon, Sutton and Brooks all scored TDs in the season opener against Florida Atlantic. In three quarters without Anderson last week, Pledger, Sutton and Sermon totaled 91 yards on 19 carries, without anyone standing out.

OU likes its depth, but nailing down a proper rotation may take time.

“Each one of us is different,” Sermon said of the group. “I guess it could be kind of difficult for teams to adjust to each running back. So I mean, I think that’s one of the best qualities we have, that each one of us unique and we play a little bit different.”

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