This wasn’t the plan. Anybody familiar with Oklahoma State knew that much. A Cowboy had rushed for 1,000-yards in each of the past six seasons. Only two schools (Wisconsin and Penn State) could boast a longer streak. Four different running backs helped make that happen, and it was easy to see experienced senior Jeremy Smith joining the group in 2013.
After a 102-yard, two-touchdown debut against Mississippi State, Smith averaged less than three yards a carry over the next five games, lowlighted by one yard on 15 carries in a loss to West Virginia.
“We needed a spark. We needed something to happen,” OSU running backs coach Jemal Singleton said. “It really wasn’t one place you could point at. It’s not like you could say, ‘Hey, it’s Jeremy Smith,’ or ‘Hey, it’s the O-line,’ or ‘Hey, it’s the receivers.’ There just wasn’t something clicking.”
The Cowboys averaged less than 2.8 yards a carry in three of their first six games. Before this season, OSU had only had three games averaging fewer than 2.8 yards a carry since Sept. 10, 2010.
There weren’t any excuses for racking up negative-yardage carries, which had stunted the group’s average.
“I don’t care if all five linemen pass out, you’ve got to find a way to get back to the line of scrimmage,” Singleton said.
Sunday night, after a 24-10 win over TCU on Oct. 19, Singelton called his running backs in for a meeting. It was time to make a change.
“This isn’t an indictment on anyone or anybody’s skills,” he told them.
Placing blame wouldn’t do anyone any good, but it was Desmond Roland’s time to start. He just made sure Smith and freshman Rennie Childs knew they’d still be needed, too. To keep winning, it would take all three.
“We got spoiled by Joseph Randle and Kendall Hunter and those guys that were truly the one that carried the bulk,” Singleton said. “I don’t think we have that this year, but we’ve got a great complement of backs.”
The switch worked like magic.
On the road at Iowa State, Roland broke loose for 219 yards and four touchdowns on a 26 carries. He’d logged just 147 yards and two touchdowns in the season’s first six games. His 8.4 yards per carry was more than any OSU back in Big 12 play since Randle ran for 152 yards and four scores on just 14 carries against No. 13 Baylor back in 2011.
“A lot of weight was lifted off my shoulders,” Roland said. “I just knew I was going to have to make plays to keep that spot.”
He followed it up with a 96-yard, three-touchdown day in a win against Texas Tech.
Roland had only logged double-digit carries in a game twice in three seasons on the field for the Cowboys, which posed a problem and perhaps limited his effectiveness.
“I feel like I had to make a play each time I stepped on the field, and I really don’t like playing like that,” Roland said.
Singleton described Roland as a “downhill, one cut and go” type of runner, but both Roland and Smith struggled at times with negative plays during the season. Roland logged 46 yards on seven carries during Smith’s disastrous 15-carry, one-yard day in the loss to West Virginia, but Singleton and head coach Mike Gundy stayed with the senior for two more games, giving Roland just five carries in that span. In the 24-10 win over TCU, Smith’s 14-yard day on 12 carries meant the coaching staff couldn’t wait any longer to try and make a change.
It played right into Roland’s strengths, and in his first two starts, he didn’t have a carry go for negative yardage.
“He’s been physical. He’s been durable up to this point,” Gundy said. “He’s gained momentum and his stamina’s been good as the game’s gone on late in the third and fourth quarter.”
Singleton pegs that as one of his favorite attributes of the Pokes’ new starting running back when he goes back and looks at film.
“There’s not much difference in first carry and last. He can just keep going,” he said.
Singleton and Gundy like to ride the “hot hand” for running backs, but Roland knows he’s the featured back, and the knowledge has paid off outside the stat sheet, too. He’s a new man without the pressure of looking to the sideline after most carries.
“It makes me practice even harder and I become more motivated. My confidence level is going up each week,” Roland said.
Singleton still had to deal with Smith, though. A promising senior season for a running back who had waited behind Randle for two years hasn’t materialized, but the reaction has helped the harmony in the meeting room from what could have been a situation that brewed trouble.
“It would have been real easy for him to turn sour, and he did the exact opposite. He started getting involved more, helping more and talking to the young guys even more,” Singleton said. “As a coach, it’s been amazing to me. You never know when you make a change, but Jeremy Smith has been the best possible teammate that I could ever imagine. It’s been unreal, the leadership he’s brought to this team even in this tough time. It was hard for him. No young man wants to have that starting job and now move back to a relief role.”
With the change, Smith’s showcased some of the same promise that made him a good compliment to Randle for the past two seasons. His longest run of the season—23 yards—came during Roland’s 219-yard day against Iowa State and he added a 15-yard score against Kansas for his fourth-longest run of the season.
“We have a good relationship, we push each other through practice,” Roland said. “We talk on the sideline and I ask him what could I have done better on one of my carries. Sometimes he’ll ask me what he should have done.”
The two have helped Oklahoma State reclaim a spot as a Big 12 title contender entering Saturday’s game at Texas. After the loss to West Virginia, the Pokes looked likely to fall well short of a second Big 12 trophy in three years, but only one victory during the team’s current five-game winning streak has come by less than two touchdowns. Now they’re one of just three teams left with realistic title hopes.
The Cowboys face a tough task this weekend when they take on a Longhorns defense that ranks second in Big 12 play in defensive yards per carry, and if OSU beats Texas in Austin for a third consecutive time, Roland will be a big reason why. However, the switch in the depth chart may never have happened if not for his development off the field.
Early on, Singleton saw a student who perhaps didn’t enough focus in the classroom. Now, when he asks academic center staff about Roland, they relay the same things Singleton’s seen on the football field. Roland had a GPA above 3.0 last semester.
“I’ve seen Desmond develop as a man,” Singleton said. “He’s really learned how to compete and win in all aspects of his life.”