STILLWATER — Oklahoma State running backs coach Jemal Singleton looked on from the field at Boone Pickens Stadium, watching Joseph Randle go through drills during the school's pro day almost two weeks ago.
It was another reminder that life without Randle, arguably the Big 12's best all-around running back the past two seasons, has begun for the Cowboys.
And another reminder that Jeremy Smith's time as OSU's starter is officially under way?
Singleton says not so fast.
“There is going to be some competition with him and Desmond Roland this spring,” the coach said. “Nobody's the true starter yet. Everybody kind of assumes Jeremy Smith should be the guy. And really, he should. But there's going to be some competition.”
Smith is, of course, the logical choice to replace Randle after two seasons as the tough, productive backup with breakout moments. His downhill running style became a weapon for the Cowboys in the red zone, and his 6.2 yards per carry average trails only Barry Sanders (6.8) in school history for backs with at least 100 attempts.
Yet two words kept surfacing when Singleton described what he wants to see from Smith this spring — reliability and durability.
Let's start with reliability. Singleton doesn't just mean consistently picking up positive yards and taking care of the football. He means Smith showing he can be counted on to pick up blitzes in pass protection and make catches out of the backfield.
Every single play.
“Not every now and then. Not 80 percent of the time,” Singleton said. “But every time his number is called or his responsibility (is given), he's gotta show that, hey, he can get that accomplished. He's shown signs that he can be that guy.
“Now, you're not a backup singer anymore. You're a lead singer. You've gotta show me those vocals are good to go.”
Smith echoes that consistency is one of his main goals this spring.
“I'm loving (being in line to start), but I have to keep working hard,” he said. “This is every day. Gotta make sure I'm staying in tune with my coaches, staying on top of my plays, just getting better each and every day.”
Now, about that durability. Before spring practice began, Singleton and Smith had a conversation about the back's recent history of nagging injuries that have slowed him at times the past two seasons.
While completely preventing injury is impossible, Singleton emphasized technique, like pad level, can help alleviate the severity of certain blows.
“There's nothing that's gonna cancel out the nicks and scrapes that you get as a running back,” Singleton said. “He's got to be able to show that he can handle those and still play through them and not miss a whole lot of time.”
But this spring is not just about Smith trying to cement himself as OSU's No. 1 back. It's about developing depth. Depth that, frankly, the Cowboys are lacking until incoming freshmen Corion Webster and Rennie Childs arrive for fall camp.
Singleton and head coach Mike Gundy have stressed OSU would always like to have four backs who are ready to contribute because of the number of plays the Cowboys run and the consistent pounding the position naturally takes.
Yet OSU has just three scholarship running backs currently on the roster. Roland, now a junior, has shown maturity that has put him in position to challenge for the starting job, Singleton said. And Caleb Muncrief, a late addition to the 2012 recruiting class who saw limited playing time as a true freshman, will have plenty to prove in his first spring on campus.
How the carries between those backs are divided is still to be determined. It could be a 60-40 split between the top two backs, with reps from the Nos. 3 and 4 guys sprinkled in. It could be closer to 50-50. It could be a running-back-by-committee approach.
Singleton hopes to have that set — and to name a true starter — by the end of these 15 practices.
“That's what this spring is for,” he said. “To find out the exact identity of our position group heading into next season.”