Everyone wants what Bob Stoops already has—a national championship. But it's been 14 years since Stoops and the Sooners lifted the crystal ball, and the Sooners are as hungry as ever for a national title.
With a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl this past season, the Sooners finished No. 6 in the polls. Most importantly, the victory made the college football world remember that Oklahoma was still capable of playing with the elite.
A 45-31 win over the two-time defending national champions in a BCS bowl game will do that for you.
Coming into the game, it was the lack of a quarterback that doomed OU. But Trevor Knight lit up the 'Bama defense (348 yards, four touchdowns) and established himself as the starter going forward.
With the Sooners entering spring football, one of Stoops' major questions has already been answered. Knight establishing himself at quarterback frees the coaching staff to turn its attention to other areas.
For a team with national contender expectations on a year-to-year basis, Oklahoma's concerns usually seem minor. But that isn't the case in Norman, Okla., this year, as they do have a major question to answer.
One look at the roster and the issue becomes clear—there is virtually no run game to speak of.
In fact, entering the spring, Oklahoma has zero juniors or seniors in the backfield.
While having the quarterback issue taken care of is great, the inescapable fact is OU wins when it can pound the ball. In the Bob Stoops era, the Sooners are 62-1 when they rush for more than 200 yards a game.
Clearly the group of youngsters will have a lot to live up to, as Oklahoma finished second in rushing in the Big 12 with 223.9 yards per game and went 8-0 when rushing for 200 yards or more.
However, gone are the key ingredients to that ranking—Brennan Clay (957 yards, six touchdowns) and Damien Williams (553 yards, seven touchdowns). In their place is a crop of running backs that has little to no experience at the collegiate level.
Now-sophomore Keith Ford is the leading returning running back, as he amassed 134 yards on 23 carries with one touchdown last season. Throw in 19 yards on three carries from then-redshirt freshman Alex Ross and you have the entire total from the running backs department.
If the Sooners want to be major players on the national scene, it means they need to find a go-to running back—and quick.
Ford, who had carries in five games as a true freshman last year, showed flashes of power and could be considered the frontrunner for the job, given he has the most carries. However, he had issues with fumbles last season.
It was something addressed by Stoops in his opening spring press conference.
“He didn’t fumble it in the bowl game; he’s taking care of it," said Stoops. "Keith (Ford) is an excellent player. Really talented guy, but as are all of them."
Alex Ross also appears to be in the mix this spring, with Stoops saying he had a very good winter and was very good in bowl practices as well.
Mixon won't be in the equation this spring, as he won't arrive in Norman, Okla., until this summer. It could mean the competition may be an extended one, unless someone runs away this spring.
As spring practices begin, what is Stoops looking for out of his youthful backfield? One thing jumps out to the head coach—ball security.
"To be honest with you, a big part of it is taking care of the ball," said Stoops in his spring press conference. "You can make a big play all you want, but if that ball is on the ground every 10 times you touch the ball it’s going to be hard for them to stay on the field."
It shouldn't be a surprising requirement with a young group of running backs. The question is, can this youthful group step up to the challenge?
Given the recruiting rankings of guys like Ford (a former 5-star recruit), there shouldn't be a lack of talent in the Sooners backfield. It will be on that talent to become productive running backs this spring.
Stoops' expectations aren't out of this world for the group this spring, that's for sure.
They’re good players. I just want to see consistency, guys taking care of the football, understanding what they’re asked to do, protect routes, are they doing the right things, are they where they are supposed to be. And, who can make big plays? Who makes something when there isn’t much there.
While all the answers may not come by the April 12 spring game's final whistle, Stoops and the Sooners need to feel confident in the running backs, or their hopes of competing for a national championship could be in jeopardy.
*Andy Coppens is a National College Football Featured Columnist. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.
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