Part of the Doc's Big 12 Week.
If you're going to compare Oklahoma tailback DeMarco Murray to any great back from the recent past, the really obvious example is C.J. Spiller. Murray was ranked right alongside Spiller among the top incoming "all-purpose" backs of 2006, and has taken a startlingly similar trajectory through his first three seasons – right down to the make-or-break senior season that will largely define his college career. Like Spiller at Clemson, Murray quickly emerged as a freshman and has remained a terrifying home-run threat as a runner, receiver and returner, while also serving as the flashier half of a platoon system with an older workhorse who's handled most of the carries between the tackles. He also struggled with diminishing returns as a junior in a hugely disappointing season for his team, and faces doubts entering his senior year about his ability to handle a full load as an every-down back in an offense that will be relying on him more than ever.
When I say "more than ever," I mean way more – the offense plans to call on No. 7 so often, according to coach Bob Stoops at Big 12 media days, that Murray's going to feel more like another former Sooner workhorse than an all-purpose gadfly:
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said today that if RB DeMarco Murray can stay healthy, he could get an Adrian Peterson type of role on the team.
"He's had some bad luck with some odd, different injuries, and I really believe coming into this year, with his experience, his ability to run but to catch the ball out of the backfield, we really anticipate him having a really big year for us,'' Stoops said. "We're hoping in line of similar to a guy like Adrian Peterson – that kind of opportunity to run the ball or have his hands on the ball that number of times is what we're hoping for.'"
It's not the first time Stoops has projected the long-awaited breakout year, though the sheer volume required for that prediction . Based on games Peterson actually completed (or nearly completed), that would amount to roughly 26 carries per game, matching Murray's career high, and twice what he averaged last year. Peterson hauled it 339 times as a true freshman, more than any other back in the nation in 2004, and ended his injury-wracked career in Norman with at least 25 carries in 16 different games over essentially two-and-a-half seasons; when healthy, he never carried fewer than 20 times.
Put it this way: Peterson had the exact same number of total touches (205) in his "lightest" year, 2006, as Murray had in a relatively healthy campaign last year – except Peterson got there in five fewer games. If the wheels hadn't started to come off Peterson as a sophomore, the Sooners would have kept running him until they did.
The subtext to even suggesting the same kind of load from the similarly fragile Murray (he's missed five entire games and parts of others over three years, including the '09 BCS Championship Game against Florida) is a not-so-subtle suggestion that OU is anxious to return to a more balanced approach after relying far more heavily than usual last year on a still-developing passing game. It's hard to argue with that: Production on the ground plummeted to its lowest levels since 2002, with both Murray and Chris Brown – both 1,000-yard rushers who averaged more than 5.6 per carry for the nuclear 2008 attack – struggling to scratch out even a modest living behind a rebuilt, injury-plagued offensive line. The Sooners averaged a dismal 76.6 yards on 2.6 per carry in their five losses, including a –16-yard effort against Texas. Murray finished with 680 yards for the year, a career low and awfully long way from the 2,000-yard season he predicted this afternoon.
The other subtext is that OU isn't quite ready to make sophomore quarterback Landry Jones the primary arbiter of the offense's fate. Jones lit up some terrible defenses last year for big numbers – see his school-record six touchdown passes against Tulsa in his second start – but he struggled dramatically when the going got a little tougher, most notably in multi-pick outings against the top-ranked units from Texas (two interceptions) and Nebraska (five interceptions). If it's unfair to judge his efforts against defenses of that caliber in his first season as an (unexpected) starter, note also that Jones struggled in the losses to Miami and Texas Tech, winnable games against relatively mediocre defenses, and was pedestrian (no touchdowns, no interceptions) in the defensively-fueled, 27-0 win over Oklahoma State in the regular season finale.
In other words, he was no Sam Bradford, who stepped right into the lineup as a redshirt freshman to lead the nation in passing efficiency en route to a Big 12 championship in 2007. That's not exactly a fair comparison. But however much Jones improves in big games, this offense certainly isn't going to come anywhere near the record-smashing group that scored more points than any other team in college football history on a scorched-earth march to the BCS title game in 2008, when Bradford walked away with the Heisman. Assuming the defense staves off a total collapse with a pair of new cornerbacks, it doesn't have to: The Sooners were held at or below 20 points in all five of their losses last year, when 21 would have won four of them.
The quickest way to close that gap is to give Jones the help he needs from the steady, reliable running game that Bradford almost always had at his disposal, and that Jones sorely lacked when he needed it most. Last year's green, oft-shuffled line returns nearly intact after taking its licks and then some. That's Murray's cue: Healthy and unopposed in the backfield for the first time, his efforts in all phases in the big games that will define the season – Florida State, Texas, Missouri, Texas A&M, Texas Tech – should make the difference in the fate of the Sooners' push to return to the top of the conference.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.