NORMAN — At practice last Monday, Dominique Whaley's position coach wanted him to take it easy.
“I said, ‘I want to try to slow you down a little bit, and maybe keep you out today,'” Cale Gundy said. “He said, ‘Coach, I can't do that. I don't want to do that.'”
Whaley, a walk-on from Lawton MacArthur, became Oklahoma's starting running back after a four-touchdown performance in the Sooners' 2011 season opener against Tulsa.
He was the feel-good story of the season until, on OU's first play from scrimmage at Kansas State, he was carted off the field with a broken ankle.
Despite the Sooners having five games left on their schedule — and six if you count Kansas State, because he was hurt so early — Whaley still finished the year as OU's leading rusher.
The next week, receiver Ryan Broyles tore his ACL, and Landry Jones struggled for the rest of the year to throw touchdown passes.
Through OU's Insight Bowl win and the offseason, Broyles' injury has often overshadowed the impact Whaley's had on the Sooners' late-season offensive struggles.
“You lose your top rusher and your top receiver and it changes you a lot,” said coach Bob Stoops. “All of it goes hand-in-hand; the run game complementing the pass game. If you're able to run the ball better, it changes things a little bit (for defenses).”
Whaley didn't participate in spring practices and was limited through the summer before being cleared in late July. Despite the injury and all the time missed, he said he's a better player today than he was when he got hurt.
“I'm a lot stronger,” Whaley said. “My frame has gotten a lot bigger. I've put on even more weight than I had before.”
Indeed, Whaley now weighs 204 pounds; before the start of last season, he was at about 197.
Being stronger and bigger — and having his ankle medically cleared — could mean Whaley again will take on a bulk of OU's rushes each game. Last year, he averaged nearly 19 carries per game (not including the Kansas State game, where he participated but had no carries).
His season high was a 30-carry, 170-yard outing in OU's win at Kansas.
There is competition for carries this year, of course, with Brennan Clay, Roy Finch, a few newcomers and even fullback Trey Millard all working to earn opportunities to run with the ball.
But Stoops said during the summer that, if his health is indeed restored, Whaley is a guy that could carry the load; the coach even invoked the name Adrian Peterson when discussing it.
“When you get a guy you feel is that strong and that capable of carrying it 20 and 30 times, and he gets hot, you give it to him,” Stoops said. “You have to have a strength and stamina to do that; it's not easy, people pounding on you.”
Strength and stamina is exactly what Whaley has worked to build, and that's why he'll continue to decline Gundy's invitations to relax.
“I think it's one of those things where the man above has touched him for having a drive,” Gundy said. “You can try to instill that into people, but some people just have it.
“And he has it.”