NORMAN — For different reasons, Oklahoma running backs Keith Ford and Alex Ross found themselves in the coaches’ doghouse last season.
For redshirt freshman Ross, it happened quickly. In the fourth quarter of the season opener against Louisiana-Monroe, Ross got his first college carry — an 8-yard run around the edge. He finished it off by picking up a personal foul penalty after swinging at a Warhawks defender at the end of the play.
Ross didn’t get another carry until the Iowa State game in mid-November.
Ford’s issue was keeping hold of the ball. He fumbled out of bounds in the Texas game, then coughed it up early in the next game against Kansas.
He didn’t get another carry until the Sugar Bowl.
With Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch gone from last year’s team, the pair each have a chance to have a big impact at running back this season. And with five-star recruit Joe Mixon still a couple of months away from arriving on campus, spring practices have been particularly important for Ford and Ross.
“I paid my dues and waited my time,” Ross said last week. “I felt like I needed time to get acclimated to everything around here.”
Ross has certainly convinced Trevor Knight, who came to OU in the same signing class as Ross.
“Nobody’s going to outwork him,” Knight said. “He’s more of a quiet guy. He’s not much of a vocal leader but he leads by example. In the weight room, he’s a beast; in any running drill, he’s going to finish first every single time.
“Getting those reps especially is helping him out a lot just getting comfortable with the offense, and when he gets his shot, he’s going to make some big plays.”
Sooner coaches have been complimentary of both.
“He’s doing a good job of running, finding holes, doing what he’s supposed to do, fewer mistakes, those kinds of things,” Sooner coach Bob Stoops said of Ross. “He’s a big powerful guy when he gets loose.”
Sooner co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said the zone-read offense that OU implemented last year for Knight is “made for” a runner like Ford.
“He’s got a ton of opportunities and he’s been put in a lot of situations,” Norvell said. “He’s getting those opportunities and you learn from your mistakes and you get better but he’s made some really good plays. He’s a physical back. He’s got to be more consistent.”
Ford, a true freshman last season, had a steep learning curve last year that included not only learning the playbook and fitting in with the system but also figuring out he couldn’t get away with some of the things he did in high school.
“Everybody is faster, everybody is bigger and everybody is stronger,” Ford said. “They are on scholarship too. … They are going to try to make plays, they are going to try to create turnovers. It’s a part of the game.”
Ford said the adjustment for improved ball security was about doing “little things” right.
“When you’re a freshman sometimes you don’t value the ball the way you need to,” Norvell said. “He had a couple issues with that and that’s a definite emphasis for him — locking up in traffic and making sure you take care of it,” Norvell said.
He’s also gained size, putting on nearly 10 pounds since last season. Ross has gained more than 10 pounds.
“All those guys come and they’re gonna give you that thump,” Sooner defensive end Charles Tapper said. “If you’re not ready for that thump, they’re gonna run you over. They’re gonna take that ball and they’re gonna hit the goalpost every day.”