The Oklahoma State Cowboys have a long tradition of fielding quality running backs. From Thurman Thomas to Barry Sanders, Vernand Morency, Kendall Hunter, Joseph Randle and all the other guys in between, the Cowboys have consistently produced 1,000-yard rushers and NFL draft picks.
However, 2013 was a bit of a regression from those lofty standards. Obviously, a slight downtick had to be expected with Randle moving onto the NFL, but many felt that Jeremy Smith could become another great Oklahoma State running back.
After all, he had consistently produced a high yards per carry and a more than respectable amount of touchdowns in backup duty.
That, as we now know, didn't come to pass.
In fact, 2013 represents one of the worst statistical seasons by Oklahoma State rushers since the 21st century began.
This past season was the first time since 2006 that the Cowboys' leading rusher didn't break the 1,000-yard mark. Further, it was the first time since 2001 that Oklahoma State's leading rusher averaged less than five yards per carry. Not the kind of stats you want to be remembered by.
The one bright spot was that the touchdowns were still there, as Oklahoma State rushers put the ball in the end zone 35 times in 2013.
All told, it was a significant downturn in performance from Oklahoma State's backfield.
However, there is a (potential) light at the end of the tunnel Oklahoma State fans. True, Mike Gundy's Cowboys aren't likely to go back to the days when the passing and rushing game were putting up nearly exact yardage totals, but this year's running backs might be able to make opponents fear the Pokes' rushing attack again.
You see, with Smith no longer in the lineup, that means Desmond Roland can take over as the lead back. Roland's 2013 campaign was a little up and down, but his time as a starter showed that his positives outweigh his negatives.
Roland looks like a starting running back, especially when you watch the tape of his performances against Iowa State and Oklahoma. If he can just become more consistent, the Cowboys might have an All-Big 12 rusher on their hands.
And Roland isn't the only guy who could be turning heads this year. We've already heard about how fast Tyreek Hill is, but it's his skill at catching the ball out of the backfield that should have fans really excited.
Think about it. If the Oklahoma State coaching staff can figure out a way (and I believe they will) to get Roland, Hill and J.W. Walsh in the backfield at the same time, they'll have one of the more dynamic backfield combinations in the Big 12.
In addition to these two big-time players, the Pokes have a bevy of players who could all contribute.
Rennie Childs showed that he has what it takes to compete at this level in limited time last year. And while Caleb Muncrief is less proven, he knows the scheme well and could see more carries come his way in 2014.
Then there's Jeremy Seaton, who will be attempting to replace Kye Staley at the fullback/tight end position. Seeing as how the young man checks in 6'2" and 250 pounds, I think it's safe to say that he'll probably do fine at that position.
And finally, there are two incoming freshman, Devon Thomas and Sione Palelei, who might have a chance to contribute. Thomas, in particular, looks like he might see quite a few carries in 2014.
Thomas is a big body who comes into Stillwater as a power back with some speed, making it easy to see him take over Jeremy Smith's role as the goal-line and short-yardage specialist in his inaugural season.
Palelei probably won't get quite as many looks during his freshman season as Thomas, but he does possess solid speed and might make an impact as a returner. (Though that position looks loaded for 2014.)
That's seven guys who all look like they could be contributors in 2014. Of course, "look" is the key word in that sentence. We'll only know how good this Cowboys backfield is once they finally take the field this fall.
However, the pieces are there for a return to the quality running back corps of Oklahoma State's past. Look for Roland to top 1,000 yards in his first season as the full-time starter, while Hill makes a bid to lead the team in all-purpose yards. And don't be surprised to see Thomas creep toward 10 touchdowns.
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