A trimmer version of T.J. Pledger had Oklahoma running backs coach Jay Boulware doing a double take this spring.
Boulware likes Pledger’s frame — he has shed six pounds — but was especially impressed watching the sophomore’s edited game highlights, all 30 of his carries in succession.
“You’re like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty good,’” Boulware said. “I saw that and he carried that over into winter conditioning, and now he’s out here doing it on the field. I think he’s doing a great job, I really do.”
Boulware seemed genuinely interested to discover if Pledger could compete for a spot higher in OU’s running back rotation, which was led by Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks a year ago.
There weren’t enough carries for Pledger to make statistical splash last season, and minor injuries limited him at times. He totaled 130 yards rushing and was used heavily on special teams.
But his potential goes beyond numbers.
“He’s got all the tools in the world,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said last fall when explaining that there had never been plans to redshirt Pledger, even before running back Rodney Anderson’s season-ending injury.
Pledger and fellow sophomore Brendan Radley-Hiles, who grew up near each other in California, arrived in Norman as highly recruited prospects from IMG (Florida) Academy. At defensive back, Radley-Hiles enjoyed ample playing time. But both freshmen experienced growing pains.
“Everybody goes through it in some way. It really tests you as a man,” Pledger said. “I think we handled it well.”
Sermon and Brooks figure to be the 1-2 running back punch OU leans on most, but the Sooners have thrived with three players at the rotation before.
In early November 2017, Abdul Adams was still getting touches when OU traveled to Oklahoma State. He, Anderson and Sermon combined for 2,447 yards that season.
OU’s best three-back production since 2007 came when Samaje Perine (1,713 yards), Alex Ross (595) and Keith Ford (392)combined for 2,700 yards in 2014, but Perine carried the heaviest load by far.
The most balanced three-back production in the past 12 seasons belongs to the ’07 squad, which saw Allen Patrick (1,009; 8 TDs), Demarco Murray (764 yards; 13 TDs and Chris Brown (611; 9 TDs) combine for 2,617 yards.
“Last year, those guys toward the end took it on and carried the load,” said Pledger, who had zero carries the last six games of 2018. “But this is still definitely an offense that spreads the ball around.”
Pledger’s biggest game was a 13-carry, 91-yard performance against Kansas State.
“He balled out, man. I’m so proud of him,” Brooks said afterward. “He just keeps improving. He’s a great back, man, just a talented back. Can’t wait to see what he does.”
It isn’t too early for Pledger to make a splash. In ’07, Brown was a sophomore when he eclipsed 600 yards.
“You know, last year was definitely a blessing being part of such a great team, learning from great guys like Rodney and Trey and Kennedy,” Pledger said. “It was definitely a learning experience. I can take that as a stride forward into this year.”
Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a 10-part series on potential breakout OU football players for 2019-2020. Next: DB Delarrin Turner-Yell, June 18.