NORMAN — When J.D. Runnels watches fullbacks continue to have a major role in Oklahoma’s offense year after year, he swells with pride.
But not necessarily for the reason you might think.
“To the common fan, they would think just because of the brotherhood-type deal,” Runnels said. “But what a lot of people don’t know is that my freshman year, we almost did away with a fullback.”
In 2002, when Runnels was a new Sooner, fresh off his All-State high school career at Carl Albert, the Sooners didn't quite feel the need for a fullback in their offense. Seth Littrell had graduated after the 2000 national championship, and running back Quentin Griffin was better out of single-back sets.
Eventually that season, though, Runnels began making an impact, then helped pave the way for a long list of important Bob Stoops-era fullbacks like Matt Clapp, Brody Eldridge, Trey Millard, Aaron Ripkowski and, now, Dimitri Flowers.
“Just knowing that it was almost extinct, and now looking back 10 years and we've had four or five All-Big 12 guys, that’s what makes me proud,” Runnels said. “And we’re probably gonna have another one with Dimitri.”
Oklahoma’s offensive schemes have changed throughout the 15-year Stoops era, but one thing has mostly remained consistent: The use of a versatile, tough fullback.
Flowers, a true freshman from San Antonio who enrolled early this spring, has drawn lots of comparisons to Millard and lived up to that with a strong spring game performance. He started the game and caught four passes for 40 yards.
How exactly do Stoops and his staff keep finding these guys?
“We’re really aware when we see very good football players,” Stoops said. “They may not have all the stars, or may not fit any one particular position but we love the way they play.
“They are smart, they have size and they can play multiple positions.”
That is the key, Millard said. OU likes to play up-tempo offense without huddling, and players like that make such a system much easier to run.
“The versatility adds a huge part to our offense, just because of the number of sets you can get into and not allow the defense to change personnel,” Millard said. “When you can go from two-backs to two-tight ends, to one-back, it’s hard for defenses to keep up with that many changes.
“And they have to try and match our personnel, so I think it gives a lot of mismatches. It allows for the offense to take advantage of those.”
Millard and Ripkowski became the Sooners’ primary tight ends last season, when the players who were recruited as tight ends weren’t consistent enough in practice to get on the field regularly.
Sophomore tight end Taylor McNamara appears primed to take the next step in his career, and the Sooner tight end room also added junior-college transfer Isaac Ijalana and former quarterback Blake Bell. That could free Flowers and Ripkowski up for more fullback work.
Flowers’ recruitment and quick immersion into the OU offense has made one thing perfectly clear: Stoops’ affection for fullbacks hasn't waned over the years.
“Bob’s an old-school guy,” Runnels said. “He likes big hits. He likes violent-type play. He likes that intensity, and that’s what I tried to bring. I cherished the role of being out there and playing, and blocking for guys like (Griffin) and (Adrian Peterson).”