Loss of Rodney Anderson An Ominous Development for Oklahoma

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When Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said the Sooners were “heartbroken” over the season-ending injury to top running back Rodney Anderson, it wasn’t just “coach speak.”

Two games into a promising season, will Anderson’s loss lead to more heart break for the OU program.

Going forward without Anderson’s productivity will be a challenge on the field but he had become of the team’s leaders. Riley said Monday that having Anderson engaged in the locker room and at practice will be important to the team.

“For us, the good thing is we’re not losing him as a leader. We’re losing him on the field. We will lose his performance, but we won’t lose him as a leader,” Riley said. He’s just a tremendous person and player and we’ll miss him on the field.”

Anderson has earned his teammates’ respect as he has been sidelined two of the three seasons in Norman prior to 2018. His maturity in handling his injuries is evident in this comment he made before this season to Eric Bailey of the Tulsa World: “The first conversation is ‘Am I going to be OK? Am I, as a person going through life, am I going to be all right?’ Once I knew I was going to be OK, football was easier to approach.”

Anderson has been sidelined by body breakdowns for the third time. He suffered a broken leg in the second game in 2015. A neck injury before the season shelved him in 2016. Healthy for the first time last season, the fourth-year junior broke out with 1,161 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught five TD passes. He didn’t earn the starting job until halfway through the season. Anderson rushed for 206 yards and two touchdowns in the College Football Playoff semifinal overtime loss against Georgia’s top-10 defense.

But on the final play of the first quarter Saturday against UCLA, Rodney Anderson made a cut, planting his right leg to try and elude three tacklers at the end of a 10-yard run. While the injury has been officially and cautiously announced as “lower leg” it certainly appears to be a knee ligament injury, most likely an ACL.

Through two games, Oklahoma’s offense has continued its prolific numbers it has produced since Riley showed up four years ago. Even without quarterback Baker Mayfield, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, the Sooners have been booming with 567 yards and 56 points per game. In six quarter of play, quarterback Kyler Murray has been outstanding, and Riley said he had the best game of his career against the Bruins.

Even without Anderson, Oklahoma is not turning to walk ons at running back.

Sophomore Trey Sermon had 744 yards and five touchdowns last season. At 6-feet, 224 pounds he’s similar to Anderson and can run between the tackles or break outside.

Senior Marcelias Sutton was a junior-college transfer in 2017 and rushed for 130 yards. Redshirt freshman Kennedy Brooks and freshman T.J. Pledger also are options. Pledger was a four-star recruit and a consensus national top-100 prospect in the Class of 2018 who enrolled early and participated in spring practice.

Murray is running an offense full of options. Receivers Marquise Brown and Ceedee Lamb have been outstanding while the offensive line has overcome the loss of three starters.

Losing Anderson doesn’t mean the Sooners can forget about a CFP selection. But it does put a bigger burden on Murray, who has just three career starts. Without Anderson, the offense goes forward without a reliable ground gainer. Running back by committee might be the answer.

Oklahoma opens Big 12 play Saturday at Iowa State. The Cyclones handed the Sooners their only regular-season loss last season in Norman. Iowa State, which had its season opener canceled because of severe weather, lost at Iowa Saturday but held the ground-oriented Hawkeyes to just 2.9 yards per carry.

Murray, who began his career at Texas A&M before transferring, has said his goal is to win a national championship. That’s why his contract with the Oakland A’s allowed him to play for the Sooners this season.

Anderson’s injury, though, casts some evil foreshadowing based on history.

After winning the BCS title in 2000, the Sooners had three more trips to the BCS title game. Two of those games were influenced by injuries. OU lost to LSU in 2002 with quarterback Jason White hobbled. In 2008, Oklahoma was without running back Demarco Murray, who was injured in the Big 12 Championship game.

That Sooners team set an NCAA record by scoring 50-plus points in six consecutive games (the last five over 60) with Sam Bradford running a no-huddle offense. Murray was the Swiss Army knife. He could line up at running back or as a slot receiver.

His versatility allowed OU to play at a fast tempo and line up in a five-wide spread – including tight end Jermaine Gresham – or in a more conventional running formation with Murray in the backfield.

If Oklahoma is cursed by injuries, it is soon to be facing a historic drought. Since winning its first national championship in 1950, the OU program went 18 years between titles in 1956 and 1974.

This marks 18 seasons since winning in 2000. The loss of Rodney Anderson is more bad juju to overcome.