The balancing act of OU commit Taylor Tatum, the nation’s No. 1 running back

The balancing act of OU commit Taylor Tatum, the nation’s No. 1 running back

Taylor Tatum has every intention — and all the tools — to become Oklahoma’s next two-sport star. In 2024, he’ll take the balancing act he’s forged in Longview, Texas, with him to Norman.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Dec 20, 2023, 6:00am CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Dec 20, 2023, 6:00am CST

LONGVIEW, Texas — The first thing you notice here are the Loblollies. 

The soaring pine trees drop light green needles that smell like citrus fruit and are prevalent across the southern United States, painting landscapes from east Texas to Alabama to parts of Virginia. They grow fast. They adapt to wide ranges of extreme soil types. Most vibrant in low, wet areas, these particular pines are durable and highly drought tolerant.

On the campus of Longview High School, there are Loblollies everywhere. Looming over the turf at Lobo Stadium. Sitting beside the baseball diamond at Lobo Field. Coloring the scenery outside the Lobo Den, the school’s cozy, if well-appointed football facility.

It’s here, beneath a sea of east Texas pines, that Taylor Tatum — the top running back in the 2024 class — learned his balancing act.

When Tatum signs his national letter of intent Wednesday, he’ll become the first top-ranked rusher to land with the Sooners since Adrian Peterson came to Norman in 2004 from Palestine, just 92 miles north of Longview. 

247Sports’ composite ranks Tatum as the 38th overall prospect in the 2024 class. Those same rankings list Tatum as the program’s highest-rated running back addition since the Sooners inked Joe Mixon — considered the No. 1 all-purpose back in his 2014 class.

Next to five-star defensive lineman David Stone, Tatum stands as a cornerstone in the 28-player high school recruiting class OU will close out when the early signing period opens. As of Tuesday evening, Brent Venbles’ latest class with the Sooners ranked seventh in 247Sports’ national team rankings

Tatum, an all-around running back with track speed, holds ambitions of becoming a first-year contributor next fall. A multi-tool outfielder and a key member in Skip Johnson’s next class, he carries high aspirations for a baseball career at OU, too.

Tatum is half an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than Kyler Murray was when he made 50 starts in the Sooners’ outfield and won the Heisman Trophy in 2018. Starting next fall, he has every intention — and all the tools — to become Norman’s next two-sport star.

“Taylor wants to be a professional athlete,” said Longview football coach John King. “I don’t think he cares which one. He may be one of those that wants to play both as long as he can. I think that’s something that drives him — being unique in his own way.”

Yet pressure, for the running back forged in the shadow of trees that soar, then adapt to their surroundings, has seldom limited Tatum or the balancing act he’s about to bring to Norman.

“I embrace pressure,” Tatum said. “Everybody gets nervous. I hate when people say they don’t get nervous. I think when you get butterflies in your stomach you play better.

“People call me a special player. In those moments, special players make special plays.”

 

Taylor Tatum’s recruiting stock skyrocketed when he ran for 1,840 yards and 33 touchdowns as a junior in 2022. (Frank Sides/Longview High School)

‘He has everything’

King has been coaching football for 32 years and coaching football at Longview for the last 24.

About 20 years ago, he stood in Lobo Stadium and watched Peterson,a standout sprinter at Palestine, compete in a track and field event. Within two years, Longview alums Malcolm Kelly and Trent Williams were Peterson’s OU teammates.

“Unbelievable talent,”  King said of Peterson. “Physically — you just watched him run. Ultimate competitor. He had it. He could back it up.”

Peterson’s talent once flashed on the track at Lobo Stadium. Tatum’s promise bubbled on its turf across three seasons in the Longview backfield, turning King’s mind to another former OU back.

He told DeMarco Murray so the first time OU’s running backs coach came to visit Tatum.

“DeMarco said tell me about him and I said, ‘he reminds me of you.’” King recalled. “He can do so many things. Whether it’s running the ball. Catching the ball. Running with power. Running with speed. Blocking. He has everything”

That ability translated into 700-plus rushing yards in Tatum’s sophomore season in 2021. The next fall, Tatum exploded, tearing off 1,840 yards and 33 rushing touchdowns to close his junior season as the top running back in the 2024 class with college football’s elite programs swarming. In 2023, committed to the Sooners but still hearing from other programs, Tatum logged 1,601 all-purpose and 27 total touchdowns.

Tatum acknowledges the weight he felt during his recruiting process as the nation’s top-ranked running back. He held offers from top-tier programs. Tatum’s name flew constantly around the national recruiting scene. And he knew he was going to get someone’s best shot every Friday night.

The strain of all the attention wasn’t always easy to shoulder. Tatum remembers asking college coaches how much attention they paid to star ratings. 

“I used to struggle with looking at the rankings,” Tatum said. “Finally, I decided this is my own recruitment. This is my own life. This is my own journey.”

That mature perspective diminished the burden. That Tatum jumped from football into baseball and track — and basketball until he couldn’t fit it into his schedule — helped, too. 

“I think it gives him balance in his life being a multi-sport athlete,” King said. “He goes from a different set of pressures from football to baseball to track.”

Tatum considers baseball to be his first love. Growing up, he watched Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen and decided to be like him. At Longview, he emerged as a power-hitting, base-stealing, elite-fielding prospect that led the Lobos to their deepest postseason run in 70 years last spring.

“What do they call them? Five-tool guys. He’s one of them,” King said. “Whatever you gotta do to be a damn good baseball player — he can do it.” 

Tatum picked track up to stay in shape and work on his football speed. That decision yielded area championships in the 200-meter dash, state track medals and an extra gear Tatum says shows up on the football field.

“You see I don’t really get caught most of the time when I break through linebackers,” he said. “I’m usually pretty much out of there.”

Tatum broke off plenty of big runs across his three seasons with the Longview varsity. The moments King will remember, however, are when Tatum showed up under the brightest lights; the nights when the competition was at its highest and Tatum felt the weight of his status most, yet managed to deliver anyway. 

Two games come to King’s mind. 

There was a 21-13 win over Lancaster in 2022 when Tatum carried 25-plus times for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Then, this fall, there was Tatum’s 183-yard effort with 30-something attempts in a 13-7 win over Forney.  

Minutes later, Tatum pulls the same games from his head and explains why he believes he thrives in the biggest moments. 

“I think about all that stuff I did to prepare for the test,” Tatum said. “I get into a pressure situation in a game. It’s a fourth-and-2, I know I’m going to get the ball and they got nine people in the box. I’m good in those situations.”

 

As Taylor Tatum navigated a major college football recruitment, baseball and track where two of his balancing forces. (Frank Sides/Longview High School)

Dual-sport decisions

If Tatum doesn’t pursue a degree in physical therapy, he believes he’ll study sports business at OU. 

So, as he embarks on a football and baseball career at OU, Tatum is familiar with the decision Kyler Murray faced choosing between Major League Baseball and the NFL in 2019. He also knows about the $99 million Murray has collected an NFL quarterback in the five years since. 

“In baseball, you have to go to the minors — you have to be in the minors for at least 2-3 years,” Tatum said. “In football, you get that signing bonus right away.”

What if Tatum were faced with a similar decision today? He knows someday he’ll likely have to pick. 

“As a kid, I wanted to do both,” Tatum said. “I know that’d be hard to do at a certain point.”

Murray’s success playing two sports at OU was one of the factors in Tatum’s decision to commit to the Sooners over USC in July. Johnson was in charge when Murray bounced between his and Lincoln’s Riley’s program. And the blessing to play baseball from Venables was a powerful nudge, as well.

“Coach Venables is all for it,” Tatum said. “He’s a very big family guy. So whatever is best for you and whatever you can excel at we’re going to let you do it.”

According to Tatum, DeMarco Murray has already constructed a multi-sport schedule. Once he lands on campus, Tatum intends to lean on Kyler Murray as a mentor. The broader regimen — jumping from one sport to the next — won’t be terribly different from high school.

The possibilities for Tatum’s time at OU appear limitless. But there are compromises inherent within two-sport stardom and they’re already on display.

Tatum, who underwent wrist surgery last month, will not be among the Sooners’ early enrollees next month, instead opting to enroll in the summer for the sake of his senior baseball season this spring. 

“Coach Venables said that they’d like to have me for spring and that they want me up here soon,” Tatum said. “But they know it’s baseball season for me.”

Shooting for the treetops

Tatum remembers spotting Peterson on the cover of Madden 25 and looked up his highlights on YouTube.

“This may sound strange but I always liked Adrian Peterson,” Tatum said. “He ran harder than anybody I knew.”

On the sideline of Owen Field for the 2023 spring game, Tatum spotted Peterson and bolted to land a selfie.

“This was before I committed and I probably looked more like a fan than a recruit,” Tatum said of the photo. “I’m hoping we’ll be able to chop it up once I get to OU.”

Tatum watched offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby leave the Sooners last month, replaced by the recently promoted Seth Littrell. It was another lesson in the business of college football that he’s about to enter.

In a world of the coaching carousel and transfer portal movement, Tatum’s plans are set and his goals are straightforward and ambitious. 

The decision to remain in Longview for his senior spring was carefully thought out. When Tatum discusses baseball, he talks about his timing at the plate and the fragile mental sharpness the game requires. An eye on the Sooners’ lineup in 2025 was a big part of the motivation to stay in high school for another season’s worth of at-bats with the Lobos this spring.

“I want to play baseball in college and I want to show them I’m coming to play for real,” Tatum said. “I want to have a good season and have them know that this guy is a dude when I get there.”

The running backs room Tatum will join in the summer includes third-year rusher Gavin Sawchuk and Jovantae Barnes, an experienced transfer in UT-Martin’s Samuel Franklin and sophomore running back Kalib Hicks. The option of a redshirt, for the time being, is not on his mind.

Tatum plans to be an element in the running game the Sooners take into the SEC next fall.

“I definitely want to contribute to some wins,” he said. “Get in the game. Score a couple of touchdowns. Five touchdowns as a freshman would be cool to me.”

Tatum has one more semester among the pines in Longview. Soon, he’ll have his hands full in Norman, embarking on his latest balancing act with the Sooners.

Like the Loblollies back home, he appears equipped to handle whatever conditions lie ahead.

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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