STILLWATER — Only five players in college football in 2011 compiled 1,200 rushing yards, 200 receiving yards and 20 total touchdowns.
Three were former Heisman finalists in Alabama's Trent Richardson, Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Oregon's LaMichael James. Another is San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman, considered to be a middle-round prospect in this year's NFL Draft.
The other was Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle.
It's difficult to fathom overlooking production like Randle had last season, where he totaled 1,216 rushing yards on 208 carries, 266 receiving yards on 43 catches and 26 total touchdowns. But that's life when you're on the same team as the dynamic quarterback-receiver duo of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon.
Now Weeden and Blackmon are two weeks away from officially becoming NFL players, leaving Randle as the biggest offensive weapon returning for the Cowboys in 2012.
Is Randle ready to take over as the focal point of the Cowboy offense?
“I really don't look at it like that,” Randle said. “I don't even think Weeden and Blackmon looked at it like that. They just were themselves, and that was the media's job to (say), ‘Oh they're the face of the offense.' I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing.”
In truth, Randle has felt like a veteran for a long time. That comes with tallying more than 400 yards both rushing and receiving as a true freshman and then replacing Kendall Hunter as the starting running back as a sophomore. Along the way, Randle was mentored by players like Weeden, who immediately started working extra with him on picking up the offense and told him to get on the jug machine so he would be ready to catch the quarterback's fastball.
“When you start making plays, that gives you more of a voice,” said Randle, who called his first career touchdown against Texas A&M the moment he felt like he could start leading. “If you haven't really been making plays, people don't listen to you as much.”
And for an offense that will have a fair amount of inexperience — most notably at quarterback — in 2012, Randle will be especially valuable. Not only as the guy Clint Chelf, J.W. Walsh or Wes Lunt can turn around and confidently hand the ball to, but as a guy who can catch the ball out of the backfield or split out at receiver.
OSU coach Mike Gundy maintains that the Cowboys' throw-first spread offense won't change dramatically this season, but based on the team's personnel, he does expect it to be more balanced than in 2011.
Of course, the Cowboys' strength at running back also comes from Jeremy Smith, a key member of what running backs coach Jemal Singleton calls OSU's “two-headed monster” who tallied 646 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Singleton notices that constant competition is what really drives Randle.
But what has always set Randle apart is his versatility. That was evident against Arizona, when he was one receiving yard away from having a 100-100 game. And against Missouri, when he tallied three rushing touchdowns and a receiving touchdown. And against Kansas State, when he caught five passes for 31 yards and a touchdown and added 73 rushing yards and two scores, including a 23-yard game-winning touchdown to cap off a thrilling victory for the Cowboys.
Where Singleton said Randle has most developed, though, is in those tough runs between the tackles as the every-down back.
“The average fan sees a five-yard carry and it doesn't spark them,” Singleton said. “But there were some of those carries that I saw that showed me that he was maturing as a football player with how he ran the ball.
“We all know Joe can slash, Joe can make you miss and do some things, but the toughness, the pad level, those types of runs are the types of things I was looking for.”
Randle said he also matured when he went through his mysterious fumbling issues late season, losing two against both Texas Tech and Iowa State. He said he was “exposed” during those two games, which helped him refocus on taking care of the ball rather than trying to make the big play.
Singleton still wants Randle to improve his speed and work on lowering his pads near the goal line, especially since he's a taller back. And offensive coordinator Todd Monken wants to make sure Randle is not overworked in 2012, especially with the reliability of Smith behind him and the continued development of sophomore Herschel Sims.
In a way, Randle's complete role for 2012 is still to be determined. His wide variety of skills allows for that flexibility. But no matter how exactly he's used from week to week, Randle's play will be critical to the success of the OSU offense.
“Whether it's carry it 25-30 times in a game, whether it's carry 10 times, catch it 10 times,” Singleton said, “he's got to make sure that every one of those touches are very productive.”