Oklahoma State’s Running Back Competition Entering 2023 Is Interesting

STILLWATER — With all the roster turnover at Oklahoma State, it can be a little overwhelming to know which positions to keep an eye on during fall camp, but running back is a position that might be flying under the radar.

There isn’t a ton of turnover for the Cowboys’ running backs (at least, relative to just about every other position group). Dominic Richardson, OSU’s starter last season, has transferred to Baylor, and the group lost Deondre Jackson, though Jackson had just 32 carries as a Cowboy.

The group added one through the transfer portal: former Michigan State Spartan Elijah Collins. But for the most part, this running back room is traditionally built with sophomore Ollie Gordon and redshirt sophomore Jaden Nixon expected to play bigger roles in 2023.

The Cowboys have four scholarship running backs on their 2023 roster: Nixon, Gordon, Collins and freshman Sesi Vailahi. That quartet combined to have just 178 college carries last season. For reference, Jaylin Warren had 256 carries by himself in 2021.

“We really just work together,” Nixon said. “We learn together. We coach each other up if there’s one thing we noticed that another person is doing wrong. Or if there’s one thing that we like that another person is doing, we’re gonna ask about it. We just talk. We try to help each other out.

“Yes, it’s a competition, but at the same time, if I’m not gonna be the guy, I don’t want Ollie or Elijah to not be prepared and everything. Even if we gotta put Sesi in there, I don’t want them to not be prepared, so we all just help each other out, take care of each other and make sure we’re all on the same page.”

OSU coach Mike Gundy pointed to his running backs as a group he is excited to watch compete in fall camp.

Gundy said with football practices getting less physical across the board to try to keep players healthy, it could be hard to get a good read on which of the backs will stand out until games get going.

“We’ve got a number of running backs that don’t really have much experience,” Gundy said. “Be interesting to watch and see where they’re at. … Unfortunately, that’s the one position where guys get hurt. They take direct hits from all different angles, very difficult position to play. You would like to go into the season with four of them. If you go in with three and then the fourth guy learning on the run, it’s OK. But that’s the one position you always concern yourself with from a depth standpoint.”

The “fourth guy learning on the run” is Vailahi. A three-star recruit from Salt Lake City, Vailahi played running back and some receiver at West High School. He chose Oklahoma State over offers from BYU, Utah State, Nevada and others.

It was just Vailahi’s first day of practice, but Nixon said he was impressed with the freshman’s summer.

“He’s doing real good,” Nixon said. “This summer, he just showed a lot of talent and potential. I’m excited to see him out here, especially when we get pads on. I’m excited to see what he can do. He has a lot of potential, I’m not gonna lie, so I’m excited for the freshman. He’s gonna be really good.”

The Cowboys’ rushing attack was lackluster in 2022. OSU averaged just 125.6 rushing yards a game, good for ninth in the Big 12. This group’s success could go a long way in making the Cowboys’ successful in 2023. As for which Cowboy (or Cowboys) will get the lion’s share of that load, it’s still tough to say.

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot: I’m a leader now,” Nixon said. “I gotta take care of the younger guys. I’m up there now. It’s about my time. I’ve been locking in mentally, preparing myself mentally and physically, not only to be better at my position but also help lead the team so we can be great this year.”