When Demarco Murray was hired as Oklahoma’s running backs coach back on Jan. 27, T.J. Pledger’s mom texted him a tweet announcing the news.
“I kind of didn’t even believe it,” Pledger said. “I was just, like, ‘Wow, it’s time to get to work; we got a legend coming in here. I’ll get coached by a legend.’
“I think all of us guys were all excited, and we couldn’t wait to get to work.”
Those were brighter days for the Sooner running backs. Trey Sermon hadn’t transferred to Ohio State yet. Kennedy Brooks hadn’t opted out. And Rhamondre Stevenson’s NCAA suspension was still less than a month old.
And Pledger was essentially fourth-string. Now the junior from IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, is the leader in the running backs room, and was last week’s starter against Kansas State.
It’s a role that was thrust upon him, but it’s also one that he says he’s had time to grow into.
“Definitely through these four months,” Pledger said Tuesday on a video conference, “I’ve seen myself take on that role, being the oldest guy out there right now and trying to lead by example and just come out there every day on the practice field and continue to work hard and keep them young guys going.”
Lincoln Riley said in the preseason that the 5-foot-9, 193-pound Pledger had been the Sooners’ most consistent running back. Pledger missed the season opener because of COVID testing, but he was in the lineup against the Wildcats and rushed for 41 yards on 13 carries. He also caught three passes for 30 yards.
“T.J.’s the starter in there right now,” Riley said. “No doubt, he’s earned that. He’s been our best, most consistent back so excited to see him get his chance.”
Pledger came into 2020 with just 40 career carries. As a true freshman behind Brooks and Sermon, Pledger ran the ball 30 times for 179 yards and a robust 6.0 yards per carry. As a sophomore last year behind Brooks, Sermon and the junior college transfer Stevenson, he carried just 10 times for 65 yards as quarterback Jalen Hurts also ate up carries.
Riley said the OU running game showed improvement against the Wildcats from the season opener against Missouri State, but the net (130 yards) and average (3.7) left room for improvement.
“Running game was definitely more consistent,” Riley said, “but was not near as explosive as we needed it to be.”
That Pledger was fourth string last season and that he had only 40 career carries coming into his junior year shouldn’t matter at a place like Oklahoma, where running the football is part of the program’s DNA. Pledger was a 4-star prospect by 247 Sports, ESPN and Rivals, was a U.S. Army All-American and was the No. 5 running back in the country, per Rivals. Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State offered him, but he chose OU.
“We definitely understand the standard that is here,” Pledger said, “and we’ve all been here with guys that were great and put the team on their backs.”
Pledger had a hard time catching up last season after preseason hand surgery.
“… Always being ready — T.J. has been that definition,” said H-back Jeremiah Hall. “T.J. has never once complained about what’s been going on around him. Every day he shows up to practice, even the past couple years building up to this moment, these past couple games for him, he’s always been ready. Whether that be behind Trey Sermon, whether that be behind Kennedy Brooks, no matter the situation he’s one of those guys that have continuously been prepared to play and his time is now. It’s showing and I’m proud of him.”
“I would definitely say I’ve been through every emotion in college football,” Pledger said. “Ups and downs, from being injured to having good camps and really not having the season turn out my way. But I always keep faith.
“I’ve got a very strong support system at home. My family, God, I’ve always leaned on them when I’ve been through hard times and they kept me going. The game’s gonna test you and if you really love the game like we all say we do, you’re gonna go through ups and downs. The main thing for me is to keep fighting and always seeing the road at the end of the tunnel.”
Pledger said Murray has been instrumental in that area, too. Murray certainly has been through the wringer as a college and professional running back, and he now owns OU career records for all-purpose yards and touchdowns to go with an NFL rushing title.
“Coach Murray has definitely made it an easy transition,” Pledger said. “… Mostly just pushing me harder to new levels and new heights that he sees in me, just allowing me to say my voice to the younger guys and be able to talk to them and push them. Just having DeMarco Murray as your coach is enough. We come every day, I wanna do things that he’s done so you wanna listen and you wanna learn and you wanna soak up all the knowledge you can get. I try my best to spread that to the younger guys.”
Anyone who watched him play knows what he brought as a player. So what does Murray bring as a coach?
“Juice,” Pledger said. “He’s brought everything to the table, honestly. It’s been a blessing to have him as our coach. Every day we come in and learn something new, we learn about the game of football outside of just the running back area, but defenses and different positions. He’s opened our eyes up to a lot of different aspects of the game of football.”
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