STILLWATER, Okla. — No. 14 Oklahoma State’s offense primarily revolves around Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Mason Rudolph and the passing game, but the Cowboys have improved their ground attack this season behind sophomore running back Justice Hill.
As the only non-freshman in the backfield, Hill has seen his workload increase as the games have gotten tighter for Oklahoma State (4-1, 1-1 Big 12).
He ran 25 times, matching his previous best from last season, for 102 yards and a touchdown in a 44-31 loss to No. 6 TCU, then set career highs with 30 carries and 164 yards in Cowboys’ last game, a 41-34 win at Texas Tech.
Hill piled up 1,142 yards and six touchdowns on 206 carries (15.8 per game) last year as a freshman, so it made sense that he would be a focal point of the running game — but not this much, especially for a team that has historically shared the ball.
Hill’s primary backup, freshman J.D. King, got just three total carries the last two games. The third-stringer, freshman L.D. Brown, hasn’t had a carry since the Pitt game on Sept. 16.
“It’s not a lack of confidence (in the backups), it’s just Justice is playing really well,” coach Mike Gundy said. “And if we feel like he’s not fatigued, then we need him in the game because we think that he can change a game right now. Would I like to limit his carries? Sure. Do I have confidence in J.D.? Yes. Is J.D. the runner that Justice is now? No. So a combination of all that has gotten him a few more carries than I would be comfortable with at this time.”
Coming off a bye week, Oklahoma State faces Baylor (0-5, 0-2) at home on Saturday.
It was in the fourth game last year, also against Baylor, that Hill first emerged as the Cowboys’ top running back, gaining 122 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries. He also lost two fumbles in that game. Gundy has been pleasantly surprised with how much Hill has progressed since then.
“I did not expect him to finish last year like he did after the first three or four games,” Gundy said. “He was young, he was a freshman, he weighed 175 pounds. But he is very mature for his age, he is very intelligent, so he was able to overcome all the outside (media attention) and focus on playing the game. And he’s developed into a pretty good college running back. He’s come further than what I would have thought in one calendar year.”
Hill, officially listed at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, underwent an offseason workout regimen that packed on about 15 more pounds of muscle, which has helped his durability and enabled him to withstand in the increased workload without seeing a drop in quality.
Gundy also pointed out that Hill’s soft-spoken personality has been a factor in his success.
“The thing that we’ve got going with Justice, and really, the majority of our players that are recognized more, they’re very humble,” Gundy said. “You won’t ever hear him say a word. If you don’t go talk to Justice, he’s not going to talk because he’s just a really quiet kid. He’s had a great upbringing, great mom and dad, and it’s easy to coach a kid like that. He’s just worked himself into being a good football player.”