NORMAN — Donovan Roberts was easily identifiable Wednesday morning at his high school, even before he sat down behind a library table to put pen to paper and, as his coach joked, “sign his life away.”
Roberts was wearing red, and not the shade that is extremely popular around here. The Norman High running back's sweatshirt was red in its purest sense, bright and distinguishable. So was the “Hog Head” hat in front of him.
Roberts committed in April to Arkansas. Even with a late run by the hometown school, Oklahoma, Roberts held firm to his vow.
“Once I made my commitment, my word was my bond,” he said just after his 8:15 a.m. signing ceremony. “I never felt like I wanted to change, to go with the school down the street. I felt pretty solid and comfortable where I was at.”
Two Sooners running backs, Jermie Calhoun and Jonathon Miller, decided in September to transfer. So, when Brandon Williams joined them, leaving in December for Texas A&M, OU decided offering another back would not hurt. The Sooners did, just before Christmas.
“By that time, I was pretty confident with my decision and everything,” Roberts said. “I mean, I still thought about it and talked it over with my parents and my coach. I just felt really, really – it was my gut instinct to stay where I was at.”
Norman High's stadium to Owen Field is literally 1 ½ miles. Walking or biking would be a breeze. So, anytime there's a high-caliber player at Norman, the presumption to some extent is that he will become a Sooner. Roberts broke the mold, even with recent OU successes from the high school such as Mossis Madu and Ryan Broyles.
“I think each kid is different,” Norman coach Greg Nation said. “Some kids grow up, and all they want to do is their whole life is wear OU on the side of their helmet. … He really liked Arkansas.”
Nation said Roberts made a giant leap forward between his sophomore and junior years, in terms of work ethic and dedicating himself to becoming an all-around player. The results indicated that his labor had paid off.
Roberts rushed for 2,002 yards his junior year. Nation first heard from Arkansas – former OU quarterback and then-Hogs-offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, actually – during the middle of that breakout season.
“Arkansas recruited him hard out of the gate,” Nation said. “They did a great job of recruiting him. They did an awesome job. … He formed a bond with those guys up there.”
Roberts had another big year as a senior, finishing his career with 5,300 yards, 64 touchdowns and 388 total points. Nation said field vision was one of his best attributes; he said it's better, even, than a recent Arkansas star, Tulsa Washington's Felix Jones.
“He was fun to coach, but he was, I think, more fun to watch,” Nation said of Roberts. “Sometimes as a coach, you get caught up watching the players instead of watching the game. He was one.”
His high school coaches noted, too, that Roberts had matured, going from a cocky, know-it-all freshman to a player willing to learn and listen. Arkansas took note of that. It also noticed – and liked – Roberts' running style.
“They said (they recruited him) because of his ability to look for contact,” Nation said. “He does not avoid contact.”
Roberts, listed at 6 feet and 200 pounds, also strongly considered Michigan and Pittsburgh. His mother, though, said she initially felt as if Arkansas was even too far. She came around as she continued to see and learn more about the school.
Roberts actually grew up liking Oklahoma State, and that was his favorite very early in the process. Arkansas' investment in him, however, soon won him over.
“It's been a joy,” Katrice Roberts Powell said, “and we can't wait to get to the next level.”
Arkansas played in its first BCS game, the Sugar Bowl, two seasons ago. It defeated Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl this past season, though its only two losses were to Alabama and LSU, the two teams that played for the national title. The Razorbacks were ranked fifth in the final Associated Press poll.
“As soon as we get there, we'll do anything we can to contribute,” Roberts said. “Coach (Bobby) Petrino, you know, they've been there two years knocking on the door. Eventually we're going to knock the door down.”
Being in the SEC was a draw, too, for Roberts.
“That's a big stage,” he said, “probably the biggest stage in all of college football.”