JONESBORO — Ryan Aplin kept the football sometimes. Frankie Jackson got a few touches in relief. Rocky Hayes had his moments on speed sweeps.
But most likely, if Arkansas State had a running play called in 2012, the ball was going to David Oku.
Last season Oku had 243 carries, the sixth-highest total in school history and the most for an ASU running back since Danny Smith’s 254 rushing attempts in 2002. He carried the ball on 45 percent of the Red Wolves’ rushing attempts.
Oku figures to be in line for plenty of carries again as a senior, especially as the Red Wolves break in a new quarterback, but whether the workload will be as heavy this fall remains to be determined. Sophomore Michael Gordon and senior Sirgregory Thornton are also trying to carve a niche in the ASU backfield.
Head coach Bryan Harsin leaves open the possibility of a three-back rotation, which he’s had some experience with as an offensive coordinator.
“It takes some management, now, because you want to get some guys into a groove,” Harsin said Monday. “You’d like to have a guy get a couple of series in there, you’d like to have your other guy get a couple series, and then you would like to have a guy who is your third down specialist-type back who is ready to go if one of those guys gets dinged. We’ll see how the workload goes. We’ll see how many plays we’ll have in a game as well. Three might be what we need for the amount of plays we could possibly get.
“You’d like to get one guy up and running, you want to get two, and you want to get the guy who has the hot hand to stay in there and flow, and then have your third guy as your specialist for certain things that you want to do that he can focus on throughout the week.”
ASU had a potent rushing attack in former coach Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense last season. The Red Wolves averaged 206.2 yards per game behind Oku, a shifty runner who finished an All-Sun Belt Conference season with 1,061 yards and 16 touchdowns.
A physical, downhill approach remains in the plans under Harsin, whose offenses have put up some impressive rushing statistics in the past. In seven seasons as an offensive coordinator at Boise State and Texas, Harsin guided four offenses that ranked among the Football Bowl Subdivision’s top 30 in rushing.
Co-offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz said the Red Wolves have identified their strengths in the running game.
“Running the football downhill,” Drinkwitz said when asked for specifics. “We’ve got a senior-laden offensive line that can recreate the line of scrimmage, so that’s what we’re trying to do and they’re doing a good job of it. We’ve got some backs with good vision and that’s what we’re working on.”
Harsin said Oku, Gordon and Thornton all had slightly different running styles early in camp. Now he’s starting to notice a more consistent approach no matter which one gets the football.
“They’re hitting the hole, they’re making one cut and they’re getting vertical. It’s every one of them,” Harsin said. “You’re starting to see more of a mentality of that group that we want to try to run the ball, we want to run the ball downhill, and they’re doing it. Everybody’s doing it in that group. One guy does it, the other ones want to do it, so it’s creating that competition and it’s creating what you want from that group in particular. I like where they’re at.”
Oku, a former Tennessee running back who joined the Red Wolves last summer, scored at least one touchdown in 10 games, including the last eight of 2012. He also had a role in the passing game, catching 20 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown.
In recent practices Oku said he has made progress in a couple of areas.
“I would just say picking my knees up in the hole, running through tackles, which I’ve been very good at doing, but I look back at the spring and I don’t think I was very productive running through tackles,” Oku said. “That’s what I’ve gotten a lot better at now and I’ll continue to get better at it, and also working on my footwork and things like that.”
Gordon saw limited action as a true freshman offensively, finishing the year with only seven carries. He had a greater role on special teams and wound up appearing in nine games.
In the spring Gordon showed the ability that made him a prized recruit out of Camden, Miss., running for 242 yards and eight touchdowns in three scrimmages. Drinkwitz, who coaches running backs, said Gordon has improved a lot in pass protection, too.
“He understands what we’re trying to do,” Drinkwitz said. “He’s adjusting to college life. He understands he has responsibilities outside of football and he has to prioritize what he does in football and what he does here in the classroom too. He’s more prepared, maturity wise.”
Thornton showed promise as a true freshman in 2010, running for 258 yards while averaging 6.8 yards per carry, but an injury ended his 2011 season prematurely and he saw action mostly on special teams last season. He ended the year with nine carries for 76 yards.
Drinkwitz said it’s possible Oku could carry the ball as frequently as he did in 2012, especially in games where he’s especially effective.
“You dance with who brought you or feed the studs, or whatever you say. If he’s having a good game, absolutely,” Drinkwitz said. “We’d like to develop some more depth and keep rotating fresh backs in there, especially with the way we play and how much we’re going to run the football. The game kind of dictates that, the flow of the game and who’s having a good one and who’s not.”
Oku envisions being a little fresher with Gordon taking some of the carries, but he’ll leave that to the coaching staff.
“I’ll just take it as it comes,” he said. “Whatever it is they need me to do, that’s what I’ll do.”