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Oklahoma Sooners 2018 Season Preview: Anderson becomes offensive focal point

Oklahoma's legendary 2017 offense had an all-time great quarterback, but the attack really didn't kick into high gear until Rodney Anderson emerged as the Sooners' feature back in the middle of the year.

Coming off a series of major injuries, Anderson needed a few games to get back up to speed. Once he was ready to go, OU's ground game took off, as Anderson rushed for nearly 1,100 yards in the final eight games of the year. That included a tour de force against Georgia in Rose Bowl that saw Anderson roll up 200 yards by rushing for almost eight yards every time he touched the ball.

Even with a loaded receiving corps, Anderson will probably anchor the Sooner offense this season.

RB duo

If there is one question about Anderson heading into 2018, it's his ability to handle another year of punishment as the lead back. He essentially lost 2015 and 2016 to injury, and his '17 workload (188 carries) essentially equaled that of Samaje Perine (196) and Joe Mixon (187) in the previous season. Riley rode Anderson especially hard down the stretch of the season, giving him at least 21 carries in five of the last seven contests.

You could look at Anderson campaign last season as a good sign of his durability for the future. Alternatively, he received a total of just 12 carries in the first five games of last season. Who's to say that Anderson can stay healthy for up to 15 games in a season, especially if Riley is counting on giving him a similar amount of per-game work this year?

Sophomore Trey Sermon making a leap would help ease those concerns. Sermon's per-game touches were inversely correlated to Anderson's workload, but he showed out early in his freshman campaign. Sermon proved himself to be a physical runner, albeit one with limited explosiveness: Twenty of his 122 rushing attempts went for 10 yards or more, versus 34 on 188 carries for Anderson.

One thing to watch this year is how often Lincoln Riley uses Anderson and Sermon on the field at the same time, much like the Sooners did with Mixon and Perine. Anderson demonstrated that he can do some damage when split out at receiver, and both caught the ball well coming out of the backfield last year. Using them together could stress defenses more than playing four receivers or having an H-back in the formation.

H-back competition

While they may lack the name recognition of an Adrian Peterson, Lane Johnson or Baker Mayfield, OU’s lineage at fullback has proven to be as consistent and, frequently, as vital to the Sooners’ eye-popping offensive output as any other position. The list includes All-Americans and NFL veterans such as J.D. Runnels, Aaron Ripkowski and Trey Millard. Arguably the best of the bunch just graduated: Dmitri Flowers.

Flowers served as a veritable Swiss Army knife in Lincoln Riley’s offense for the last three years. When he wasn’t leading a convoy of blockers for devastating running backs like Samaje Perine, Joe Mixon and Rodney Anderson, Flowers was carrying the ball himself for first downs and touchdowns in short-yardage situations. He could catch the ball out of the backfield as well as any other running back on the roster. He also thrived as a receiving threat when he lined up at tight end or split out wide. Riley even used him as a blocker in the wide receiver screen game, helping to spring shifty wideouts such as Marquise Brown for big gains off quick throws out wide.

OU has a handful of players on the roster who could potentially take the place of Flowers. None has shown he owns a Flowers-esque skill set, though.

Carson Meier currently looks like the top option. Recruited to OU as a tight end, Meier added weight and worked his way into heavier personnel packages in the last two seasons. He has the mitts and size to give OU’s QBs a dependable safety valve in the passing game and he’s a competent blocker. He won’t replicate Flowers’ production with the ball in his hands, though.

The player more likely to match Flowers as an offensive threat is freshman Brayden Willis. A three-star recruit out of Texas, Willis presented opponents with a nightmare matchup when his team had the ball. He did most of his damage as a receiver/split tight end, but he frequently lined up in the backfield.

OU's official roster lists Willis as a tight end, but H-back looks like his future. It maybe be another year before he is ready. It doesn't seem out of the question to think Willis could find a way on the field in an H-back-like role in '18.

OU recruited redshirt freshman Jeremiah Hall as the natural replacement to Flowers. Hall’s name hasn’t surfaced much in camp reports lately, though. As of now, it seems unclear if the coaches view him as a viable option for this offense.

-Allen Kenney