STILLWATER — Oklahoma State running backs coach Jemal Singleton's philosophy isn't all that complicated.
One cut and get north. As in, toward the end zone.
Yet Singleton and Cowboy starter Jeremy Smith both admit Smith had gotten away from that mindset, particularly in a shocking loss to West Virginia two weeks ago in which he tallied just one yard on 15 carries.
Against K-State last week, however, Smith began to return to that downhill style, a trend he knows must continue when the Cowboys face a physical TCU defense Saturday at Boone Pickens Stadium.
“It's always just a one-cut game,” Smith said. “Sometimes we lose focus of that. We just try to think too much and try to do too much. You can't let that happen.”
Smith called his performance against the Mountaineers an “embarrassment.” And Singleton graded him hard, though the coach says Smith actually did several things right on certain runs that did not result in any yards.
That's because OSU's rushing woes are about more than Smith. Singleton says he has made mistakes. And the offensive line as not been as stout as in year's past, particularly at right guard.
But a running back can perhaps most be measured when things break down around him. When the hole isn't huge. When an offensive lineman or receiver misses a block. When an opponent sends a blitzing linebacker through the exact gap that was supposed to turn into a running lane.
And that's when Singleton goes back to his philosophy.
“My best chance at moving a pile and making positive yardage is to get north,” Singleton said. “It's to stick my foot in the dirt and run fast and as hard as I can that way.
“It's basic physics. If I'm running sideways, I'm gonna get knocked backwards. If I'm running forward, I've got a chance to fall forward and gain extra yards.”
That was Smith's specialty during the initial stages of his OSU career, when the Cowboys would often take Kendall Hunter and Joseph Randle off the field in short-yardage and goal-line situations and put Smith in to get the tough yards. He became a true weapon in that role, scoring a touchdown in 10 consecutive games that stretched the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
But last season, Smith started talking about trying to add more moves to his game. And at times in 2013, Smith has gotten caught trying to make things happen behind the line of scrimmage.
That led to the worthy question of if backup Desmond Roland deserved to get more looks against K-State. Instead, he got fewer, carrying the ball just twice for one yard.
Because Smith was visibly better. His numbers weren't staggering — 11 carries for 56 yards and a touchdown. But he showed more power and burst throughout the game, then came up with a critical 16-yard scamper on the Cowboys' game-winning drive.
Overall, Singleton's position group is not where he wants it, with four reliable backs. Right now, he's only comfortable with Smith and Roland in game situations, though true freshman Rennie Childs is getting increased reps in practice.
Which means, especially now, Smith continuing to abide by the “one cut and get north” philosophy is critical.
“Each and every week you just have to have something to prove, and (against K-State) I did,” he said. “And it's gonna continue that way. There's still people that are still doubting us and everything like that, so you've got to get better every week.”