Running back depth could spark Oklahoma's offense

Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley could have a quandary on his hands.

Sophomore running back Samaje Perine will be the face of OU’s offense in 2015. His Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year campaign -- which included an FBS single-game record 427 rushing yards against Kansas along with 1,713 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns -- has cemented his name among the nation’s top running backs.

Yet don’t expect the Sooners to turn to Perine every time they look to get the ball in the hands of a running back this fall.

OU has an embarrassment of riches at the running back spot, even with the indefinite suspension of junior Keith Ford earlier this week. Perine leads the line but redshirt freshman Joe Mixon has dazzled with his physical gifts since his return to the field after a suspension, junior Alex Ross returns with his proven playmaking skills and early enrollee Rodney Anderson entered the fray to impress early in spring practices before suffering a MCL strain last week.

It’s a problem, but a good problem to have.

""Just play the very best ones,” said Cale Gundy, the man responsible for recruiting the running back depth on OU’s roster as the Sooners running back coach before his move to inside receivers coach this offseason.

The answer could be found in the differences between the ball-carriers.

Perine excels as a downfield runner, making tacklers pay for getting in his path. Mixon catches the ball like a receiver and excels in the open field. Ross brings an unmatched combination of size, speed and proven big-play ability. Anderson, who will miss the remainder of the spring with his MCL strain but should return for summer workouts, impressed with his intelligence and quickness during his first few practices as a Sooner.

Seeing two running backs on the same field could become commonplace in 2015 with Mixon and Perine serving as the ideal candidates. Mixon’s versatility makes him a perfect fit alongside Perine.

“He is very good,” receiver Durron Neal said. “He is very elusive, a big back. He’s another one of those guys who is always ready to play football and is a high-energy guy. He’s looked real good and he’s going to be a problem for a lot of teams.”

In an offense that values the ability to create mismatches on the fly without substitutions, Mixon’s versatility will make him a valuable commodity.

“He looks good, he’s powerful and catches the ball well,” coach Bob Stoops said.

One play OU could line Mixon up in a power formation alongside Perine in the backfield forcing defenses to stop Perine’s power up the middle or Mixon’s open-field ability on the perimeter in the ground game. On the next play the Sooners have the option to slide Mixon to receiver and test defenses through the air without any change in personnel.

“He’s a very good player,” Riley said. “He’s been a complete team player. He brings a lot of energy to our practices. He’s been nothing but a positive influence to the team and to our offense. He has a really nice skill set to go along with that. I couldn’t be more pleased with him at this point.”

Using running backs in the passing game would be nothing new for Riley. In 2010, running back Jonathan Williams had 154 carries for 847 yards and 52 receptions for 431 yards for ECU in Riley’s first season as an offensive coordinator. During his five seasons as offensive coordinator at East Carolina, the Pirates averaged 60.2 passes to running backs per season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. By comparison, OU threw to its running backs 63 times in its zone-read style offense last season.

The ball promises to be in the air in Riley’s offense but it could often land in the hands of Mixon or another Sooners running back. It’s one element of Riley’s first offense in Norman that could become a nightmare for Big 12 defenses.

“I’m very aware, as Lincoln is, with the quality of running backs we have here,” Stoops said. “That will not be a problem. He’ll find ways to take advantage of the great running backs that we have and tailor our offense to the personnel that we have.”