For as thin and inexperienced as the pass catchers will be in 2014, the Sooners' running backs may be in even worse shape. Sophomore Keith Ford is the only back with a decent number of career carries. There is young talent that could potentially blossom, but Joe Mixon was the highest regarded of the three newbies – the other two being redshirt sophomore Alex Ross and freshman Samaje Perine – and it is uncertain whether he will play this season, or ever, for OU.
Oklahoma may need Ford to carry the load in 2014. Luckily, he’s talented enough to do just that. Depending on which service you look at, Ford was a four- or five-star recruit, and he averaged 5.8 yards per carry in limited action last year as a freshman. He had no receptions, which would probably need to change if he is to become the feature guy.
Ross picked up just three carries as a freshman. Like Ford, Ross was a highly rated prospect, and he could have a big season in 2014. The raw tools are there. However, of the two, he would seem to be more likely to be overtaken by one of the freshman.
The other non-freshman running back competing for carries is redshirt sophomore Daniel Brooks. Brooks is an undersized back who tore his ACL during a track and field event after signing day in 2012.
Regarding the two newcomers, Perine, listed at 243 pounds, may be a replacement for Trey Millard. There is no predicting how Mixon’s current legal troubles will play out, but he will not be participating in team activities until the investigation is concluded. That will likely put him behind the other backs, even if he is cleared.
Sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight is actually the returning player with the most rushing yards from a year ago. It is easy to forget in the wake of the Sugar Bowl, where Knight barely ran at all, that his legs were his biggest strength in 2013. Another year in the weight room – and more experience reading his keys on option plays – could make him a more effective runner in 2014.
If Knight gets hurt, the option game could disappear altogether. Backup QBs Justice Hansen and Cody Thomas may be decent runners, but they probably won't be comfortable enough with the option for it to be a key part of the offense.
The thin depth at running back and quarterback could lead to the increased use of other players in the running game, too. Receivers can get involved in sweeps and option plays, with screens being used instead of tradition running plays as well. The Belldozer package could be used as well; though, if Bell is truly an effective tight end, he may be more effective in the red zone as a receiver.
Possibly the best news related to the running game is that the offensive line returns four starters. Center Ty Darlington is the only new starter, but there does not seem to be much concern about his ability to man the pivot. Darlington is also the runt of the group, listed at just 286 pounds. The other four projected starters are listed at weights north of 325 pounds. A line with four massive, experienced seniors should be a major strength of the team and help the young backs.
If the Sooners can find a few playmakers – and if those play makers can stay healthy – there may be more games like Kansas State from last season (301 yards rushing). Health is a big “if,” though. Getting experience for younger players in early games against weaker opponents such as Louisiana Tech could be the key to having a consistent ground attack all season.