Oklahoma Sooners' depth at running back to be tested

Published: Saturday, January 3, 2009 at 12:42 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2009 at 12:42 p.m.

FORT WORTH, Tx. -- No one connected with Oklahoma's football team is making light of the loss of DeMarco Murray, the Sooners' most explosive running back.

"We will miss DeMarco because he is a great player," center Jon Cooper said. "You always will miss someone like that who has contributed all year.

"But, we are lucky enough to have depth in that position and you saw in the Big 12 championship how Mossis Madu stepped up."

Murray suffered a hamstring injury on the opening kickoff of the Big 12 Championship Game that required surgery. Nevertheless, Oklahoma plugged in Madu, No. 3 on the depth chart, and maintained a featured running back tandem.

Chris Brown, Oklahoma's leading rusher, and Madu combined for 236 yards rushing and six touchdowns. Madu gained 114 yards on 15 carries and scored on runs of 12, 1 and 37 yards in the 62-21 romp over Missouri that landed the Sooners in the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 8 against Florida.

"I think (Madu) is capable of more," Cooper said. "Wait until he gets into a rhythm. I think he will be even better."

Madu, a third-year sophomore, concedes he's learned some new skills since walking onto the OU campus from Norman (Okla.) High. Patience is surely one of them.

"It's been really hard to wait," Madu said. "People have kept telling me to be patient and there will be a time for all of us. I knew my time would come, and it's come."

He's been a spot player this season. Most of his 96 carries (for 349 yards, 3 TDs) before the Big 12 title game came in mop-up time. But while many programs struggle to find more than one top-quality running back in any one season, Oklahoma has perhaps an unparalleled history of putting together a quality depth chart of backs in recent seasons.

"We've been fortunate to have quality players at running back who have stepped up and really answered the call," coach Bob Stoops said. "We've had several of those situations, when one guy has gone down and another has stepped up and played well."

Brown was one of them. He got his shot in 2006 when he moved in behind backup Allen Patrick, who took over most of the load when Adrian Peterson went out with a broken collarbone. Losing a back of Peterson's quality normally would be a crushing blow. OU kept on winning.

Carrying on the tradition, two highly regarded backs (Jermie Calhoun, Justin Johnson) are freshmen-in-waiting.

Stoops credits both the system and assistant coach Cale Gundy. "We've had success with our backs, and it is attractive recruiting-wise for players to be here," Stoops said. "But I think, too, coach Gundy has done a great job of developing those guys. He's done a nice job of coaching them and using them. He's played to their strengths and allowed them to be productive."

Gundy said he looks beyond talent for a particular kind of person.

"I work hard at recruiting players, and I only bring in players who are going to fit this system," Gundy said. "And if you're going to be a selfish player, you're not going to come to school here and play running back.

"I want players who want to win championships."

Madu said that along with taking advantage of the opportunity to stay at home, championship rings were a major draw for him.

"I could have gone to UCLA and played early," Madu said. "But I wanted to win games, to come here and be around great things."

Murray, in addition to the 1,002 yards gained rushing, was also an important cog in the passing game, catching 31 passes for 395 yards and four of his 18 touchdowns. He averaged 12.7 yards a catch.

Yet even there, OU doesn't expect a significant drop-off. Before the season, the staff considered using Madu as a slotback.

He goes into the BCS title game with confidence boosted by his performance against Missouri.

"It gives me a lot of confidence," he said. "I know we're playing a real good team for the national championship. But I know if I play hard, I will be able to do something."

Brown said losing Murray hurts on both a personal and competitive level.

"We've got a big piece missing," he said. "But Mossis is a great athlete, and I think he can produce just as well as any of us."

That's been the history.

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