Kennedy Brooks left Wednesday’s press conference with a loud “Yessir!”, exclaiming he’s excited to be playing football again.
Brooks, now a redshirt junior, opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 before deciding to return to Oklahoma for 2021. He said due to uncertainty surrounding the virus at the time of his decision, he discussed opting out with his family and ultimately felt the choice was best for his health and their safety.
Still, he agonized over missing 11 games, saying it was difficult to watch from home. He saw his teammates struggle to run the ball through a 1-2 start and wasn’t there to build rapport with new running backs coach DeMarco Murray and first-year starting quarterback Spencer Rattler.
But Brooks said sitting out made him “appreciate the game more” and he was determined to stay in shape, working out and watching film as if he were playing. He described his training regimen as an “NFL offseason,” which he split between Oklahoma and his home in Mansfield, Texas. And while not technically on the team, he was wearing his mask and socially distancing himself as if he was, holding himself to the same standard as other Sooners. Now he’s back at an optimal time for OU, using the spring to prepare for the coming season.
“I really love the game,” Brooks told reporters over Zoom on Wednesday, often smiling throughout the near nine-minute press conference. “I really love playing at OU, and I just wanted to play with my boys one more time, just to be able to come back and just see what I can do.”
Along with junior Tennessee transfer Eric Gray, redshirt sophomore Marcus Major and sophomores Seth McGowan and Mikey Henderson, Brooks will be tasked with replacing Rhamondre Stevenson and T.J. Pledger. The Sooners’ top rushers last season combined for 1,116 yards and 12 touchdowns before Stevenson declared for the NFL draft on Jan. 7 and Pledger transferred to Utah on Jan. 12.
“We’ve got so many talented guys that left and we just reloaded, honestly,” Brooks said. “So many great backs. … We’ve got so many weapons it’s just all making us better, just competing and just getting better every day.”
Among Oklahoma’s weapons though, Brooks has the most extensive experience. After redshirting his first year in Norman, he rattled off two-straight 1,000 yard seasons from 2018-19. He’s got 2,067 yards and 18 touchdowns on 274 attempts, averaging 7.5 yards per carry in his career. Brooks has also registered nine games with over 100 rushing yards. Gray has only five such games to his name, while Major, McGowan and Henderson — who moved to running back from H-back this spring — have none.
In addition to his seasoning in head coach Lincoln Riley's offense, Brooks' exposure to big games stands out, too. He’s the only OU running back with College Football Playoff snaps, having played in the 2018 Orange Bowl and the 2019 Peach Bowl.
His resume plus his exuberant personality — evidenced by Wednesday’s closing exclamation — could lend to twofold leadership the Sooners’ backfield lacked last season. Stevenson and Pledger were both soft-spoken and the former started the season on a five-game drug suspension, while the latter had primarily been a kick returner until his junior year.
Brooks said he’s already beginning to concoct the chemistry with Murray and his teammates he didn’t get last season, even eight days into spring practices. As the Sooners chase another Big 12 title, a College Football Playoff return and perhaps their first national championship since 2000, Brooks appears ready to lead the OU rushing attack in 2021. His teammates think he’s up to the task, too.
“If anything, he's picking up right back where he started,” redshirt senior H-back Jeremiah Hall, Brooks’ roommate and best friend said on March 24, just three days into spring camp. “Physically, he's still there. Mentally, he's still there. And so he may have been gone, he might have been gone for a year, but that doesn't mean he didn't work.
“He's ready, and he expects to compete and put on a show.”