Oklahoma's Rodney Anderson returns from injury, has huge shoes to fill

Rodney Anderson has struggled with injuries, but he's ready to take over as Oklahoma's primary running back. AP Photo/Alonzo Adams

NORMAN, Okla. -- Rodney Anderson’s career so far has been defined by injury.

But after back-to-back season-ending incidents, including a scary neck injury last preseason, Anderson is hoping his Oklahoma career will begin to be defined in a different way.

As the running back who overcame those two injuries. Then kept Oklahoma’s powerful ground game rolling.

“I’m going to take the opportunity and do the most I can with it,” Anderson said. “I’m always going to give 100 percent in everything I do and just try to make the most of it.”

Coming out of Katy High School, Anderson was one of the top running0back recruits in the state of Texas when he inked with the Sooners two years ago. Despite working behind All-Big 12 backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, Anderson stood out his first spring after enrolling early. Which is why even though the Sooners were already loaded in the backfield, they made plans to play Anderson as a true freshman.

But after getting his first career carry in the opener, Anderson suffered a broken fibula in his left leg while trying to make a tackle on a kickoff at Tennessee, knocking him out of the season.

In 2015, Anderson made it all the way back. Only to be knocked out for the year again the following preseason with a fracture in his C5 vertebrae, which forced him to wear a neck brace for three months.

“When [they] told me I couldn’t play the second year, it really hurt,” Anderson said. “But there’s a silver lining in everything. I guess the good thing I got out of it was I got two years to mentally prepare myself. The bad thing is that I didn’t get to showcase it.”

This spring, Anderson is back to showcasing his abilities. He's also put himself in position to take over as Oklahoma’s primary ball-carrier.

“Every quality you’d put down for a great running back or just a great football player, he checks a lot of the boxes,” said Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley.

Anderson has been checking the boxes in the weight room, too. The 6-foot-2, 223-pound workout warrior might be -- pound-for-pound -- the strongest player the Sooners have.

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield calls him a “specimen.”

Riley says Anderson is a “freak.”

“On [strength coach Jerry Schmidt’s] testing,” Riley said, “he’s at the top or near the top in everything. He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s smart.

“One of the most gifted guys that we have.”

Though he has only one career carry through two seasons, the Sooners are optimistic that Anderson can lead the way in softening the blow of losing both Mixon and Perine off last year’s backfield to the NFL draft.

That will be quite the task.

Mixon, who was one of the top pass-catching backs in the country, finished second in the nation last season in all-purpose yards; Perine, a workhorse all three years on campus, left as the school’s all-time leading rusher.

“We're definitely up for it,” Anderson said. “I don't think you can replace the style that Joe and Samaje had, but you can bring your own style. As far as my style, I'd say I'm versatile. I can catch. One cut and go.”

Anderson won’t have to do it all alone. The Sooners brought in one of the top junior-college running backs in the country in the shifty Marcelias Sutton to assist. Abdul Adams returns as well after taking over for Anderson as the No. 3 running back last season. The Sooners also have high hopes for incoming freshman and early enrollee Trey Sermon, who was one of the top backs nationally in this recruiting class.

Anderson will also be running behind the best offensive line Oklahoma has boasted in years. And he'll be playing alongside Mayfield, who is coming off back-to-back top-five finishes in the Heisman voting.

Anderson admits Mixon and Perine left some massive shoes to fill. But he also believes the offense can pick up right where it left off.

"We have some good people stepping up," Anderson said. "We reload here."

The Sooners believe that reload starts with Anderson. Who, despite the two injuries, has never looked better.

“We’re thrilled about where he’s come,” Riley said. “He’s getting ready to have a big year.”