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Replacing Runnels?
After four productive seasons from the fullback spot; the Sooners are hoping to find a good replacement

It’s the most overlooked position on the field. As a matter of fact, there are plenty of teams that do not even list one on their roster. However, the fullback, when used properly, can be the battering ram for an offense bent on establishing a productive ground attack.

For the past four seasons, the role of lead bulldozer at Oklahoma was manned by J.D. Runnels. The 5-foot-11, 237-pound blocking machine was everything the Sooners needed in a fullback and more. He helped a freshman tailback break NCAA records and kept blitzing linebackers off three different quarterbacks.

Before Runnels entrenched himself as the starting fullback, the team deployed the position sparingly. And while the Midwest City, Okla., product didn’t exactly revolutionize the position, his uncanny ability to open holes transformed the job into a vital part of the engine that runs the Sooner offense.

“Prior to him being here, we had a void there and were more of a one back team,” said offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. “J.D. evolved into being one of the more intelligent players. We were able to move him around to create some different looks.”

But that luxury ended, at least momentarily, when Runnels was taken in the sixth round of this year’s NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears.
With Runnels gone, coach Bob Stoops’ staff hoped to use spring practice as an opportunity to find his replacement, focusing its attention on two leading candidates — Dane Zaslaw and Matt Clapp. Wilson and company gave both players a hard look through the Red-White Game and they will find themselves under the microscope even more leading up to the 2006 season.

Unfortunately, it’s not just on-the-field talents OU will be missing with the loss of Runnels — the All-Big 12 first team performer was a team leader in every aspect as it related to the program. As a senior, he was voted one of the team’s co-captains.

Those are intangibles the coaching staff is not expecting Clapp or Zaslaw to fill, at least not immediately. But they are qualities all young prospects can learn from and attempt to emulate.

“First of all, I think of (J.D.) as a great person,” Wilson said. “Great guy on field. Great leader and worker. One of our more favorite players — the way he carried himself on the field and off.”

That’s what OU needs from the players who assume that role. Going into the fall, it’s all about finding out whether or not Zaslaw or Clapp are ready to make that leap.

That is what the competition during spring ball was supposed to show. But, according to Wilson, neither one was able to establish himself as the leading contender during practices or scrimmages.

“Clapp had a slight injury that cost him three to four days of practice. But Dane didn’t separate himself past Matt while he was injured,” noted Wilson.

Clapp, a 6-foot-2, 242-pound sophomore from Phoenix, played in eight games last year, all on special teams. The 6-foot-1, 242-pound Zaslaw, who hails from Edmond, is in his third year with Oklahoma. Like many players who come to Norman, he changed positions after arriving.
The redshirt junior began his career as a linebacker.

Both Clapp and Zaslaw have the body-type and ability Wilson looks for in his fullbacks, but size and speed are just a few of the traits OU’s offensive coordinator believes are necessary to be successful as a fullback.

“I tell the guys we are going to start at point A, and point B is where you end up,” Wilson said. “It’s a mindset, toughness and being aggressive that I look for. They have to play physical and have nice hands.”

It takes the right kind of attitude to be willing to only carry the rock a precious few times a year. Lowering your head and bulldozing anyone in a different colored jersey is not exactly the recipe for stardom.

Runnels’ career stats do not tell the whole story. He only totaled two rushes for 5 yards, but did account for 450 yards on 51 receptions. He finished No. 3 on the Sooners’ career list for receptions by a running back.

“(J.D.) was a guy you can use in different spots and get him into the passing game,” Wilson said. “He gave us a productive two back attack.”

To understand the true value Runnels brought to the fullback spot, look at the ball carriers who followed his lead. In 2003, the team ran for 2,392 yards, with four backs rushing for more than 200. The next season, Runnels blew open holes for Adrian Peterson, who set a freshman record with 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns.

That is the type of production the Sooners will be looking for again this season. With Peterson entering his junior campaign as a possible Heisman candidate again and the team ranked in the top five, a lot of what Oklahoma wants to do will be determined by the fullback.

“The fullback, it’s a position you take for granted until you don’t get production from it,” Wilson said. “That is a position you don’t think of as important as the high profile position, but it gives us an opportunity to be more versatile in the running game and passing game. My concern is making sure they play at a high level, and if not, find out if they will hurt us.”

If none of the fullback prospects establish themselves or show they can play at the level Wilson and Stoops expect, there is a chance the Sooners might have to run more of a one-back system. That is something they would prefer to avoid.

“Again, you get limited when you do that,” Wilson said. “Going into the season, I want to make sure this position keeps evolving.”

While the Sooners have previously experienced success in a one-back format, there are certain drawbacks that take away from what the coaching staff wants to accomplish on the field. Over the past few years, OU has transformed from the slash-and-burn offense that used its speed to devour defenses. It’s now a physically imposing squad that wants to put the rock in the hands of Peterson and quarterback Rhett Bomar, line-up in the I-formation and run behind a mammoth offensive line.

Having a fullback to help clear the way — much like Runnels spent his career doing — helps make that style possible.

“J.D. was a part of us becoming a more physical offense,” Wilson said. “He was a big part of that transition. He was at the point of attack. When you run the ball well, a lot of the credit goes to the offensive line. But then a lot of the success comes from what the tight end and fullback do.”

The upcoming season will be a big one, full of high expectations for the Sooners. They seemingly have all the pieces in place for a run at a national championship. With experience coming back on both sides of the ball,
Oklahoma is set up to make a return to the top of the Big 12 and the NCAA ranks.

However, as unassuming as the position can be, Oklahoma’s success could be dependent on what it is able to get out of the fullback. That’s a lot of pressure for Clapp and Zaslaw.

“Coming out of spring, those guys have a chance to be the type of player J.D. was,” Wilson added. “They are not where J.D. was, now. But they need to play at a high level. We don’t want to play them if they are not productive. I told both of them that for us to be a championship team we have to have a strong two-back offense.”

Editor's Note: This story appears in the 2006 Football Preview issue of Sooner Spectator, due to hit newsstands on June 13-14.