NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — When Oklahoma experienced a mini-exodus at the running back position last year, the search for reinforcements began.
One game into this season, the fifth-ranked Sooners (1-0) may have found their man. Damien Williams became only the eighth player in Oklahoma history to crack 100 yards rushing in his debut.
A San Diego high school star, Williams led the National Junior College Athletic Association in scoring and rushing last season at Arizona Western College. Right away, he's been able to fill a void left when three reserves transferred from Oklahoma last season.
"If it wasn't for people leaving or injuries or anything, who knows? I probably wouldn't be here," Williams said. "But all I know is I'm here now, so I'm ready to roll."
After the Sooners struggled for three quarters in their opener at UTEP, Williams finally put the game away with a 65-yard touchdown run around the right end and then angling back toward the left corner of the end zone. The score made it 24-7 and provided some cushion on a night when Oklahoma couldn't get much going offensively.
Until Williams' long run, the Sooners were averaging just 3.4 yards per carry.
"Whatever the line wants to give me, that's what I'm going to take," Williams said. "If it's the hard yards, I'm going to take the hard yards. If it's open, I'm going to take it all the way if I can."
Williams did plenty of that last season at Arizona Western, leading the NJCAA with 188 points (31 touchdowns and a 2-point conversion) and 1,931 yards rushing, or 160.9 per game. His Matadors made it to the national championship game before losing.
Along the way, Williams caught the eye of Sooners running backs coach Cale Gundy, who had a void to fill in the backfield.
Reserves Jermie Calhoun and Jonathan Miller transferred out of Oklahoma's program last September, and freshman Brandon Williams — an Under Armour All-American in high school — left for Texas A&M after playing in a fill-in role once starter Dominique Whaley was lost for the season to a broken ankle.
"We weren't looking for any junior college running backs, and then a couple guys felt they'd be best off playing somewhere else, so then we got in the hunt," Gundy said. "We were fortunate to get in and get a guy who's potentially got a chance to be a good player for us."
Williams outperformed one-time starter Roy Finch and fellow newcomers, including freshman Alex Ross, to earn a spot in the running back rotation with Whaley and Brennan Clay. Williams finished with 103 yards on 10 carries against UTEP, while Whaley and Clay had 80 yards combined on 17 carries.
Whaley last year broke 100 yards in his debut, the first to do it since Adrian Peterson in 2004. The others are Waymon Clark, James Culbreath, Steve Davis, Horace Ivory and Kerry Jackson.
"With Dom, he's more of a speed and power back. With Brennan, he's more of a shifty, quick guy. And I'm more of a downhill, get-right-after-you," Williams said. "Teams are going to have to get used to that. I hope they're ready."
Williams was born in Mississippi and grew up in San Diego before signing with Arizona State out of high school. He ended up going to junior college instead, and he re-opened his recruitment after Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson was fired and replaced with Todd Graham.
"When they got fired, all the doors opened up for me," Williams said. "And then OU called. You can't just look away from OU, so I took interest in them. I had guys from San Diego already here who could make it comfortable for me, so it was a great decision that I made."
Williams has fit right in with Clay, a fellow San Diegan who was always on opposing teams, and other Californians on Oklahoma's roster, including receiver Kenny Stills and safety Tony Jefferson. Even before the first game, coach Bob Stoops predicted that Williams could "really make a difference for us this year."
"He knows the importance. That's why he chose to come to Oklahoma," Gundy said, suggesting that the high-level junior college play prepared him for major college football. "He has two years to prove (himself) and have the opportunity to help this team be successful and possibly help himself in life."