Then-Cerritos College head coach Frank Mazzotta didn’t know who Rhamondre Stevenson was or what he was willing to do to play at the college level when he showed up in the summer of 2017.
As the head coach of a school that doesn’t recruit outside of California, Mazzotta didn’t expect a sensational talent like Stevenson to show up from the Las Vegas school system with a smile and a wish to play. He didn’t know about the summer of taking adult education classes before his senior year of high school just so he could get the grades to play in the NCAA. He didn’t know how willing Stevenson was to trust the process of the JUCO route, sharing time with other running backs ahead of him.
Mazzotta didn’t know that Stevenson had the talent to eventually move on to play for Oklahoma, scoring five touchdowns in his first five games as a Sooner, or that his bruising running style and his speed would average 191.9 rushing yards per game at Cerritos, while racking up 2,111 rushing yards in just 11 games.
“All I know is he showed up,” Mazzotta said. “It was just a great surprise for us.”
The talent was always there for Stevenson, but high school grades below NCAA standards were a roadblock that made the running back take the JUCO route. OU fans are quite fond of players who took the same road, such as Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Josh Heupel to name a couple.
Stevenson was already poised for the next level by the time he showed up at Cerritos. With a transformative summer in 2015 that Stevenson describes as a “reality check” and a supporting cast of family and friends, Stevenson readied himself for an Oklahoma career that’s only getting started now.
“Rhamondre had a tough road,” said Stevenson’s father, Robert. “He stuck in it, but it wasn’t tough to him. It was more tough on me and his mom more than anything. But he kept in it. I guess he’s seen the big picture."
“He worked hard to get where he’s at.”
‘Eat, sleep, work out. It was just a grind the whole summer.’
Stevenson’s stature is deceiving.
He was one of the bigger players on all of his teams growing up, whether it was Pop Warner football or high school, and defenders didn’t know just how fast or shifty he was when he got the ball. That uncertainty didn’t go away when he reached 6 feet tall and 230 pounds by the time he got to Centennial High School in Las Vegas.
“Let’s speak on what he can’t do,” said Ty Flanagan, a childhood friend of Stevenson’s, who plays running back at Idaho State, said with a laugh. “At that size he had great speed, real shifty. He runs like a smaller back. And he comes with power. He’s great at blocking.”
What Sooner fans see today when Stevenson runs — finding openings and having defenders bounce off him — is exactly what he did all through his career. He became one of Nevada’s best football players in his class. He was getting offers early from schools like BYU and USC.
The only thing in his way was his grades. He was able to stay eligible throughout high school, but eligibility in high school — a required 2.0 GPA — was different from the NCAA’s requirements. In recent years, the required GPA for core classes like math and English has been raised from 2.0 to 2.3 in order to play in the NCAA. Stevenson didn’t do well in those classes his freshman year, and he had to work to replace those grades.
“It’s a lot of guys in Vegas that they have all the talent in the world,” said Bill Murphy, whose little brother played with Stevenson in Pop Warner football. “They just can’t make it out because of academics.”
Stevenson wasn’t going to let the number 2.3 get in the way of a high school career that saw him run for 1,457 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns his junior season. He consulted Ben Arave, a former high school coach who was known in the Las Vegas area for taking in high school athletes and getting them eligible for the next level. Stevenson needed to replace some grades he had his freshman year at Centennial by taking adult education classes during the summer, and Arave wanted him to focus on school while also staying in shape for football.
“Rhamondre did everything in his power, that’s why he ended up going to adult school,” said Stevenson’s mother, Juran. “He was ready to do whatever he needed to do.”
Stevenson decided to stay with Arave in his home in Henderson, Nevada, outside of Las Vegas for the summer so he could be closer to the adult education classes he would attend to bring up his GPA. Arave had him and the others doing anything to gain muscle: running hills, weightlifting in the garage, pull up bars, gymnastics rings and more. Stevenson also took three-hour classes two to three times a day for the entire summer. He stayed with five other student-athletes who sought Arave’s guidance, with Murphy and Flanagan in the mix.
“Eat, sleep, work out,” Flanagan said. “It was just a grind the whole summer.”
Arave, now 47, took Stevenson and everyone else to multiple seven-on-seven tournaments in Idaho, where Arave is from. Arave coached them all summer and made sure everyone stayed active and worked on their academics.
“That's when we really went full throttle,” Arave said. “(Stevenson) embraced it fully, which I greatly appreciate.”
Murphy, who was living with Arave at the time and played linebacker at the UNLV, remembers seeing Arave and Stevenson stay up late doing homework.
“He had no idea that he was going to get eligible,” Murphy said. “He was just hoping he would get eligible because it was a tough, tough process for him to get his credits.”
Stevenson finished his four years at Centennial with a career-average 114.5 rushing yards per game, tallying 1,832 yards and 19 touchdowns, per MaxPreps, and although he worked to get his credit back, he didn’t quite make the cut for the 2.3 core GPA requirement. He and his family decided for him to go to Cerritos College, a community college in Norwalk, California.
“I saw a guy who was just kind of at the cusp of going down into deep despair or going the route that he did go,” Murphy said. “I saw a guy that was determined, working every day as hard as he could.”
‘Man, you gotta really be on your stuff out here.’
As Stevenson prepared to make the jump from high school to college, Robert was nervous for his son.
Even at the junior college level, the transition can be concerning. Stevenson was joining a Cerritos College team that already had two other running backs to lean on. Stevenson didn’t bat an eye, and in his first season he ran for 501 yards and three touchdowns while sharing time.
“He never showed any lack of interest or disrespect because of that,” said Frank Montera, who coached Stevenson and the running backs at Cerritos and has coached at the program for a total of 36 years since he started in 1972. “We had three guys, and we tried to play them equally.”
In 2017, Stevenson became the go-to back in his second season. Montera said he admits they probably should’ve played him more his first season, but Stevenson didn’t falter. He knew he was going to be fine.
“He told me and a few other guys, ‘I’m gonna get 2,000 yards,’” said Carl Odom, a running back at Cerritos College who played with Stevenson in 2018. “Everyone kind of laughed. He went out there and did it. ... It was cool to see him put his money where his mouth is.”
Stevenson put up video-game numbers, running for 2,111 yards and 16 touchdowns. He ran for over 200 yards in four different games, one of them for 339 yards and three touchdowns.
“I've been watching him do that forever,” Robert said. “I mean, I was the one nervous when he went to high school. When he graduated from junior high school, I was telling him, ‘Man, you gotta run hard, you gotta run fast, you’ve got to be more physical.’ I was the nervous one. And he was like, ‘All right, dad.’ And he’d get out there and do the same thing. When he went to college out at Cerritos I was like, ‘Wow, look at these big dudes.’ I’d say, ‘Man, you gotta really be on your stuff out here.’
“I'm nervous again. But he gets out there and does the same thing.”
It didn’t take long for Stevenson to garner attention and make people realize what his family, coaches and teammates have known all along: that Stevenson was ready for the next level. OU came calling in fall 2018, and Robert said the decision was easy to make.
“When we got a call from Lincoln Riley,” Robert said, “I was crying and laughing at the same time, because I knew it was going to happen. I was just happy for him and all the work he put in.”
Stevenson finished his career at Cerritos with 2,612 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns in 21 games. There, he got his degree in kinesiology, and he now studies human relations at OU. He also played some of the best football Cerritos has ever seen.
“He showed us that, no matter if you have to take the JUCO route, it’s about how you finish,” Odom said.
“He was unbelievable,” Montera said. “I’d be very surprised if he’s not playing on Sundays.”
‘I think he has really good feet for a big guy. He reminds me a lot of ways of Samaje (Perine).’
Stevenson has yet to show any signs of being timid.
The first time Stevenson was available to talk to the media was after OU’s 48-14 win over UCLA in September, where he rushed for 37 yards and a touchdown. Stevenson already had three touchdowns in three games. He was gaining more momentum.
Stevenson was fresh out of practice when he arrived to a room full of reporters. The sweat was still dripping down his forehead. Yet when he walked in, and media members with recorders and cameras started pointing their devices at him as they crowded around, the JUCO transfer smiled.
He cracked jokes. A reporter asked him which NFL running back he bases his game on and reminded him of the time Trey Sermon compared him to Jamaal Charles.
"I see what he's saying," Stevenson said before pausing and letting out a laugh. "But without the speed — I'm not a blazer like that. The hair, probably."
Soon after, he claimed he’s more of a Marshawn Lynch kind of guy. And rightfully so.
Stevenson brings physicality to Oklahoma’s running back unit while also honing his elusive running skills. Defenders bounce off him, and his ability to stay on his feet is above average. He’s already being compared to OU’s all-time leading rusher.
“The physicality shows up,” head coach Lincoln Riley said. “I think he has really good feet for a big guy. He reminds me a lot of ways of Samaje (Perine). I think they are extremely similarly built, low to the ground, balanced. He catches the ball very naturally. He’s got a nice skill set. He’s just going to get better and better.”
Stevenson was finally where he wanted to be: in Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium with the ball in his hands, in the fourth quarter of Oklahoma’s 49-31 season-opening win over Houston. Everything he’d worked for had finally paid off.
Two yards into his first rushing attempt, the ball was stripped by a Cougar defender, resulting in a turnover that put Houston on the Sooners’ side of the 50-yard line. That didn’t deter him. Two drives later, Stevenson ran 21 yards for his first touchdown as a Sooner.
Since then, Stevenson has rushed for 356 yards in six games and five touchdowns in his first five games at Oklahoma. He’s proved to be a reliable back, even while sharing time with running backs Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon. When Brooks couldn’t make the trip to Oklahoma’s 45-20 win over Kansas, Stevenson stepped in and ran for 109 yards and a touchdown.
Riley’s trust in Stevenson goes as far as letting the first-year Sooner have six carries in OU’s 34-27 win over Texas in the Red River Rivalry, where he ran 24 yards to the Texas 9-yard line in the fourth quarter to put the Sooners in scoring position to ice the game.
After not making the 2.3 GPA cutline, finding his way in school and taking the JUCO route, Stevenson is now exactly where he’s supposed to be. He’s the leading rusher of the Oklahoma running back unit, and he’s just getting started.
“He’s worked so hard for it,” Juran said. “He didn’t give up. A lot of people would’ve most likely given up — because he had to do a lot to get to where he’s at now.”