Emergence of Rodney Anderson ignites Oklahoma's ground game

NORMAN, Okla. -- Going into the season, Oklahoma had the quarterback and offensive line to go up against any team in the country.

Going into the postseason, the Sooners now have the running game, too. And a budding star at running back -- Rodney Anderson -- is leading the way.

Since taking over as Oklahoma's primary back in late October, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound third-year sophomore has rushed for more than 100 yards in five of six games. Over that span, Anderson ranks No. 1 in the country with 1,047 yards from scrimmage. He's second with 14 total touchdowns, including five receiving.

"His versatility has been impressive," said Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, who noted that Anderson has been a more versatile player for the Sooners than Joe Mixon, who ranked second nationally last season in all-purpose yards before bolting for the NFL. "Rodney has caught the ball, he's passed protected well, he's run physical, he's popped some long plays running. Him being able to do all that. ... that's really helped us."

Although the offense still runs through quarterback and Heisman front-runner Baker Mayfield, Anderson has provided Oklahoma with yet another devastating element to its attack.

On Nov. 11 in the first meeting with TCU, a team the Sooners will face again Saturday in the Big 12 title game, Anderson torched the Horned Frogs with 151 yards on the ground, 139 receiving and four total touchdowns. It was the first time since at least 1996 that an FBS player had that many yards rushing and receiving in the same game. It was also just the third time an Oklahoma player had more than 100 yards rushing and receiving in one outing.

"We've got to tackle the running back. We did a poor job, and one of the reasons is a good player, Rodney Anderson," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "You don't tackle very well, then you're going to have a hard time playing good defense. ... won't matter what else we do in the game if we don't do that."

The Sooners have always believed in Anderson's star potential, but major injuries prevented him from realizing it until now.

Anderson's freshman season was cut short two games in after he suffered a season-ending leg injury. Then last season during spring practice, he injured his neck, which knocked him out for the season again.

"When things get down, you can't get down with them," Anderson said. "I just try to keep my eyes on the prize and just keep moving forward and just keep doing the best I can do for the team."

That attitude has translated to the weight room, where Anderson has been turning heads since he arrived in Norman despite spending much of his time rehabbing. That's one reason Mayfield privately pegged Anderson as Oklahoma's breakout star for this season all the way back in March.

"If you would see the way he works in the offseason and how he conducts himself every day behind the scenes, you would say the same thing," Mayfield said. "You would guess that he was going to be that next guy. Physically, some of the stuff he does is just impressive."

To his teammates, Anderson's most impressive feat of strength so far was jumping out of a whirlpool tub.

"I didn't think that was possible," Mayfield said. "I can't even jump four feet (high) when I'm out of water. He's a special guy."

As special as Anderson had been behind the scenes, he still had rust to wipe off after basically sitting out two straight seasons.

Through Oklahoma's first five games, Anderson only touched the ball 15 times, as true freshman Trey Sermon and Abdul Adams shared the bulk of the rushing load. But finally, on Oct. 14 against Texas, Anderson got his chance to shine. And he responded with a 15-yard double-cut touchdown dash.

Since, Anderson has been about as impressive as any player in the Big 12, save for Mayfield. And even though Anderson essentially watched the first half of the season from the sidelines, the league's coaches named him second-team All-Big 12 this week.

"Straight up, I didn't expect this," said Oklahoma left tackle Orlando Brown, a finalist for the Outland Trophy. "He hadn't practiced much all year and really not much of his time here. At first, he was a little shaky, kind of up and down. Obviously, he's come a long way.

"And he's only going to get better."