NORMAN, Okla. — It’s spring, and the focus hasn’t changed for Oklahoma when it comes to Rodney Anderson. He’s practicing, but the goal is to get him to the season healthy.
What’s changed is the rationale for keeping the running back’s exposure to contact at a minimum. Last season, it was to finally get him on the field during the season to see what he can actually do. In 2018, it’s to make sure he remains one of the best running backs in college football.
Anderson rushed for 1,161 yards and scored 18 touchdowns in 2017, with just about all of it coming in the final eight games of the season. Although, Anderson wouldn’t mind a heavy spring workload if it was offered.
“I’m not worried about any injuries,” Anderson said. “I’m just out here to play and help the team any way that I can.”
The best way he can is to become a foundational piece of the Sooners offense for the 2018 season. The Sooners must replace Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield and All-America tight end and Mackey Award winner Mark Andrews. Anderson, who rushed for 201 yards and 2 touchdowns in the season finale against Georgia in the Rose Bowl, showed he’s of their ilk.
There’s an argument that Anderson is college football’s best running back entering the 2018 season. He averaged 7.0 yards per touch last season, and that average includes some rusty performances as he shook off the rust from missing two years with season-ending injuries in 2015 (broken left leg) and 2016 (neck).
Oklahoma looking for leader
Anderson isn’t boisterous by any stretch — rewatch some of his touchdowns from last season. After every one, he starts looking for someone to hug like a kid who was lost and just found a familiar friend. He doesn’t crave individual attention or the spotlight.
But some of the biggest personalities from the Sooners’ 2015-17 squads are gone. The energy Mayfield could bring to a meeting room, practice field or 85,000-seat stadium is gone. The mean streak tackle Orlando Brown infused an offense with is preparing for the NFL.
Those players are hard to replace. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley is trying to find players to fill that void.
“You have to identify who on your team that you think can lead. You’ve got to teach them how to lead and push them out of their comfort zone to do it more and more,” Riley said. “You’ve got to make guys realize that a year ago you were either in high school or on this team listening to someone else, always looking to somebody else, and now they are all looking at you. It’s a different perspective for them.”
Anderson understands his new position.
He’s mentoring a group of running backs that includes freshmen Kennedy Brooks and T.J. Pledger. It’s one of those pay-it-forward deals he learned from former teammates Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.
“The running back room is really competitive, but at the same time we’re all family, too,” Anderson said. “We all love each other. At the same time, we’re all trying to get better and improve each other.”
Oklahoma and Rodney Anderson have big plans
There was a thought very early in 2017 that Anderson’s lone healthy season at Oklahoma could be his last. He would be an elite running back three seasons removed from high school at the end of the year. Anderson looked like he was more than capable of taking his talent to the NFL.
But for Anderson, those thoughts came and went quickly.
“You always think about it, but I had work to do here. There’s a lot of things I have left to accomplish,” Anderson said.
What else can he accomplish?
A second straight healthy season would do wonders for his NFL stock. After last season, there’s also the intrigue of what Anderson can do with a full season as the Sooners’ No. 1 running back.
But if Anderson is interested in the numbers, he hides it.
“I’m just trying to help my team win a national championship. That’s the big goal,” Anderson said. “First we have to get through the season and get a Big 12 championship, but the ultimate goal is to win a national championship for this university.”
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