STILLWATER — Before the ball is snapped, when all eyes are on the quarterback, Ollie Gordon’s eyes are on the defense.
Before Gordon, sophomore Oklahoma State running back, touched the ball on a 71-yard rush against Iowa State or a 16-yard touchdown last week against West Virginia, he was reading where the gaps in the defense are. Gordon stands out from other running backs with his athleticism and frame, 6-foot-1, 211 pounds, but his vision is starting to distinguish himself nationally.
“I think it’s more of a pre-snap thing,” Gordon said. “Before the ball is snapped I just look around and see how the defense is moving, how they’re shifted and which way I can cut and which way I can’t. So I feel like that plays a huge part.”
Quarterbacks and offensive linemen live in the world of reading defenses.
Chris Jensen coached Gordon all three seasons of high school at Euless Trinity in Texas. He said Gordon played about 30 games of quarterback in seventh through ninth grade and came in for some specific run packages his senior season. Jensen called Gordon a “really sharp” football player and said his time at quarterback has made him better at reading defenses.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said most running backs know a little about reading defenses because of pass-protection situations, but as far as a running back doing it every play in the run game, that’s unique.
“If he’s doing some of that in the running game, he’s helped himself,” Gundy said.
And boy, has Gordon helped himself.
As the Cowboys prepare to play Cincinnati this Saturday (7 p.m. ESPN2), Gordon is coming off back-to-back Doak Walker National Running Back of the Week awards. In his past two games he’s eclipsed 200 total yards and scored six touchdowns. He’s averaging seven yards a carry and totaled 842 yards in four Big 12 games.
Gordon, still just 19, continues to see the field more clearly with the more repetitions he gets.
Let’s take the game against Iowa State, when Gordon first pulled away from the three-man rotation at running back with Jaden Nixon and Elijah Collins. Gordon had 18 carries, one of which he took down the left sideline for 71 yards.
On that play, Gordon lined up 2 ½ yards directly behind quarterback Alan Bowman, who took a shotgun snap and pivoted, handing Gordon the ball straight down the middle. As soon as he secured the ball, Gordon bounced the run to the left, bypassing the clogged line of scrimmage and turned the corner up the sideline, blowing past defensive backs T.J. Tampa and Ben Nikkel.
Against West Virginia last week, Gordon again lined up 2 ½ yards behind Bowman, taking a similar handoff. A hole opened along the line of scrimmage between left tackle Dalton Cooper and left guard Cole Birmingham, so Gordon plunged through it, reaching the second level.
Gordon had a decision to make.
He had straight-line momentum that would have brought him to a collision with safety Anthony Wilson, so at the 13-yard line he planted his foot bouncing to the left sideline. Wilson got caught up in traffic created by receiver Leon Johnson III and Gordon absorbed a diving tackle from the last defender, Beanie Bishop Jr., for a 16-yard touchdown.
“He’s starting to see it and have better vision now than he did (early in the season) and I think it’s just because of reps,” Gundy said. “I mean, you watch him, he was making cuts and getting in open field in West Virginia different than he was even a month ago, so I just think it’s repetition and he’s getting used to it.”
The OSU offense has started to lean into Gordon’s ability. Both of those plays described were straight handoffs, Gundy confirmed the Cowboys have simplified the scheme, ditching some of the read-option and angled runs that make it more difficult on Gordon to read the field.
“Some people think that when a back is going straight on he’s got better vision than when he angles because he can’t see as good out of this eye over here as you can this eye going straight ahead,” Gundy said. “Now, I don’t know if that’s true or not, I just know that’s what some people said when we started calling around about it a month and a half ago.”
In the past four games, Gordon has 108 touches. In the three games to begin the season, he had just 25.
The increased workload has helped Gordon develop a trust with his offensive line that tackle Jake Springfield said started in the spring, offseason and fall camp.
There is a working relationship between Gordon and the offensive line during games and practices. In practice, Gordon asks his linemen how they are seeing the defensive alignment and listens to where they think pressure may come from or what side to expect the line to pin a defender.
Jensen said he noticed Gordon do quite a bit of coaching on the sideline at Trinity.
“Ollie’s not afraid to talk,” Jensen said. “So there may be some running backs that can read it like he does who don’t talk like he does.”
The relationship extends to the film room, too. Gordon watches tape with his linemen, checking to make sure their reads are the same, and talking through the play if the reads are different.
“He’s willing to soak up all that knowledge so when it comes to Saturday we’ve kind of seen it, worked it through together, so I know if I pin a guy inside he’ll take it this way, or if I can just get this guy cut off he’ll be able to take off,” Springfield said.
Gordon’s vision, his film study and his relationship with the offensive line has translated into three consecutive wins, turning the complexion of OSU’s season around. The Cowboys, a little more than a month removed from getting out-rushed 243 to 94 by South Alabama, a Sun Belt Conference representative, have their offensive centerpiece: a defense-reading tailback.
“It’s great knowing that we got a guy out there trusting us to hold our blocks, trusting us to open up holes and he’s going to find one and hit it full speed and be able to break a tackle and make a guy miss, take one to the house,” Springfield said.