NORMAN — Oklahoma senior Trey Millard's college career ended prematurely Saturday night, when he suffered an ACL tear during the Sooners' 38-30 win over Texas Tech.
Coach Bob Stoops nicknamed the senior “Slash” because of all the positions he could play: fullback/tight end/H-back/running back, etc.
But really, Millard was the latest in a long line of versatile, unselfish Sooners who did the thankless dirty work in Stoops' offenses, paving the way — often literally — for other players as they racked up statistics and glory.
So who's next? It's hard to imagine anyone being as versatile and effective as Millard right away, but given Stoops' track record, the odds are good that someone else will emerge as Oklahoma's next “Slash.”
Junior fullback Aaron Ripkowski has spent the last couple years carving out that type of role for himself in the Oklahoma offense. The former walk-on earned a scholarship after last season, and has been used at times this year in two-tight end sets with Millard, in addition to occasionally lining up as an extra blocker in the backfield.
“They're very important,” OU co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said of Millard and Ripkowski early last week. “We have versatile players, and Rip's been that kind of a guy for us this year. He's kinda playing a couple of different roles as a fullback, as a tight end, not his natural position.”
Seth Littrell, J.D. Runnels, Matt Clapp, Brody Eldridge and Millard have all, in one way or another, been the guy in that role. The spot has evolved through the years, but those five all performed critically important work on record-setting, championship offenses without many individual accolades to show for it.
Traditional fullbacks have slowly fallen by the wayside over the past decade as spread, up-tempo offenses evolved. But Stoops has shown a knack for identifying these types of players, even if they weren't fullbacks in high school.
Runnels played tight end and defensive end at Carl Albert, but became a fullback in Norman. Eldridge signed with the Sooners as a defensive end, but became a tight end/fullback hybrid player.
Millard played on the offensive line, at linebacker, running back and tight end in high school. Ripkowski said last week that he was a high-school linebacker who didn't bring any ball handling experience to Norman with him.
Millard's value as a blocker had become particularly noticeable this season, as Oklahoma has shown an impressive ability to sustain long, time-consuming drives in the fourth quarter.
Even after Millard's injury, Oklahoma ran nearly six minutes off the clock, giving Texas Tech the ball back down eight points with only 1:17 remaining.
“Brannon Green, some of those young tight ends are gonna have to step up,” said senior center Gabe Ikard. “Aaron Ripkowski's gonna have to have a bigger role now.
“We don't have anyone that can replace him, all the things he does, special teams, offense … we don't have someone that has that skill set, but we're gonna try to put people out there and put them in good situations and be able to try to what Trey's done the last several years, and we'll see how that goes.”