Jalen Hurts’ running ability has been a problem for opposing defenses, but leading the team in rushing to this point has not been by design, OU coach Lincoln Riley said.
It’s also not the end goal.
“He's had several straight-up scrambles that weren't quarterback runs that have gone — the first play of the game [against UCLA] goes for 50-something yards. That's part of it. The other part is we've been able to play a bunch of backs. Those guys have not had to carry the ball 25 times apiece, not yet,” Riley said. “You don't want a quarterback to be your [leading rusher] at the end of the season. I doubt he will be for us. We've got some pretty good backs and we're going to need those as we get into Big 12 and the later part of the season."
Nearly 40 percent of Hurts’ 99 offensive plays have been runs — he has carried 38 times for a team-high 373 yards, an average of 9.8 yards per attempt. His four rushing TDs also lead the Sooners.
Coupled with running backs Trey Sermon, Kennedy Brooks and Rhamondre Stevenson, that production has resulted in booming rushing totals through three games, even behind a new offensive line. OU rushed for more than 300 yards once in its first six games last season, but has done so in all three games this year.
So, why not lean on the backfield more to help preserve Hurts’ health, specifically the arm that propels OU’s Air Raid offense? That will happen eventually, Riley said. Hurts’ pace will be difficult to maintain, especially as conference play arrives. OU’s running backs will receive more work in games necessitating clock management.
While waiting for T.J. Pledger to recover from hand surgery, OU’s other backs have felt little strain. Only one of them has double-digit carries in a game (Sermon 11, Houston) this season.
“I definitely want to touch the ball more. I mean, I’m a running back,” Sermon said. “But I just try to make plays as much as I can. I want to touch the ball more. But being fresh, feeling good going into Big 12 play is a good feeling too.”
All of the running backs have
The good news is: "They are fresh,” Riley said of the running backs. “I don't know it's been as much of Jalen's running, but we've had three guys here so far that have been able to carry it and carry it well. They know our offense and we're able to use those guys interchangeably. That's not going to happen [all season]. We're going to have games where all those guys have a lot more than the seven or eight carries they've been getting. That's coming.”
Conserving them now can pay dividends later. Backfield depth was dangerously thin late last year.
“At times we were hanging by a thread. There was times we were sitting there like, if one more guy gets hurt, we may have to play an empty the whole game,” Riley said. “There were some real conversations about that. I remember the Kansas game, Trey's out and all of a sudden Kennedy's nicked up and we're like, we don't have anybody left. So we recruited hard and developed hard and it's good to have some bodies in there now."
Little dropoff exists between Sermon and Brooks. Stevenson has impressed in his debut season, leading the group with three TDs. Each player averages more than 7 yards per carry.
"We don't really know an order or have an order. That's kind of how the carries have been divvied up,” Riley said. “I still think that Sermon and Brooks are probably 1A and 1B, but Rhamondre certainly has gotten better and we'll get T.J. Pledger back pretty soon and he was playing extremely well before he was injured.”
Yet the group of backs has combined for 5 TDs, just one more score than Hurts.
It’s anyone’s guess how much longer Hurts’ ground show continues. But if people are worried about his health, he says they’re wasting their time.
“I can get hurt walking down the stairs right now,” Hurts said, “so can’t really worry about injuries. You just got to go out there and play football … Never really had any injuries like that happen. So, hopefully it stays that way.”