From the time he arrived on campus in 2015 as a four-star recruit out of Katy, Texas, Anderson started earning rave reviews from OU’s coaches. However, a broken leg on a special teams play in game two ended his rookie year. A fractured vertebra in a 2016 preseason practice meant his sophomore season was over before it started.
Anderson’s star-making turn came last year when his 1,161 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns put him squarely in the Heisman Trophy conversation entering 2018. He started the year off with an even 100 yards and two TDs on just five carries in the rout of Florida Atlantic.
But last week's injury against the Bruins puts Anderson's future – whether he's back at Oklahoma in 2019 or decides to go to the NFL – in doubt. In the meantime, the Sooners have to replace the player expected to be the focal point of their offense this year.
Running back is one position where OU has historically stacked up talent, and luckily for head coach Lincoln Riley, his current group of backs features plenty of candidates to pick up Anderson’s load.
Sophomore Trey Sermon will get most of the work in the short run. He was essentially OU’s lead back to start 2017 while Anderson was still getting back up to speed off the vertebra injury, ending the season with nearly 900 rushing and receiving yards combined.
Sermon runs hard and won’t hesitate to put a lick on opposing tacklers. He also has proven to have better hands than expected as a receiver out of the backfield.
While Sermon lacks the electricity of Anderson in the open field, he still pounds out hard yards when he hits the open hole. So far this season, though, it’s the part about hitting the hole that seems to be an issue. UCLA bottled Sermon up for 13 yards on seven attempts last week as he appeared hesitant behind the line of scrimmage.
There’s no reason to believe Sermon won’t get back on track now that he’s OU’s featured back. How he contributes in the short-yardage situations where Anderson excelled will be especially important.
If Sermon is going to be the Sooners’ bell cow, the role of change-up back will likely go to senior Marcelias Sutton. At 5-foot-9, 192 pounds, the former junior college transfer won’t be steamrolling any would-be tacklers. However, he’s shifty and has been running with a sense of determination through the first two games that wasn’t there when he primarily played special teams last season, his first in Norman.
Sutton’s 11-yard TD scamper versus the Bruins showed off the burst and balance that could make him into a weapon in OU’s offense.
Going forward, the wild card in OU’s backfield will be true freshman T.J. Pledger, a blue-chip recruit who was on campus for spring practices. Through two games, Pledger already has 14 rushes for 83 yards, an average of nearly six yards per carry. A smooth runner in the open field, Pledger looks like the back who brings the closest approximation of Anderson’s explosiveness to the table.
Although Riley has admitted that the plan was always to get Pledger involved this year, relying heavily on the freshman likely wasn’t. A big question facing the rookie at this point: Does he have a command of the offense? Also, Pledger will need to show he has the ability to help protect quarterback Kyler Murray in passing situations.
After just nine months in Oklahoma’s strength and conditioning program, Pledger probably can’t handle a full workload for the entire slate in 2018. Still, don’t be surprised if he transitions into the Sooners’ top running back as the season wears on.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.