'Bigger, stronger, faster': Stillwater High senior tailback surging in first year as featured back

Sep. 29—Noah Roberts was projecting to spend most of this season for the Stillwater High football team as a receiver.

That is, until last year's leading rusher Holden Thompson went down with a left leg injury during the offseason.

But even then, Roberts spent much of the summer still working as the H receiver in seven-on-seven camps as the coaching staff counted down the days until they would have to make the final decision on putting the senior into the backfield to start the season.

"We didn't really address the tailback position until we got to fall camp," SHS football coach Tucker Barnard said. "We were in the middle of seven-on-seven camps and you don't really use a tailback, per se. We just didn't really even talk about it, didn't make a decision — though in the back of our minds, we knew he was going to be the tailback, but we didn't really know how it was going to go."

Fortunately for Roberts — and the Pioneers — when he wasn't split out wide to catch passes this summer, he was in the weight room trying to bulk up. He added 20 pounds to creep closer to 150 pounds on his 5-foot-7 frame.

It would prove pivotal as the Pioneers placed him into the lead back role.

There was still some uncertainty of what to expect from Roberts after his junior season.

After racking up 41 carries for just shy of 300 yards in the first two weeks in 2021, he began to spend more time at receiver and became more of a backup tailback to Thompson.

He didn't take long to showcase the extra muscle would carry well for him.

In the season opener against Greenwood (Arkansas), he had a career night with 29 carries for 190 yards and two scores. and he would duplicate it two weeks later with 22 attempts for 154 yards and four touchdowns against Yukon.

"I just had a good offseason workout and got bigger, stronger, faster," Roberts said.

Through just four games, Roberts — who transferred in from Pawnee prior to his sophomore year — has half of the total yardage of last season's leading rusher over 12 contests. He is also just four scores short of the production from Thompson.

However, last year Thompson did split some time with Robert's — most notably the first two weeks of the season. Roberts this year has been the bell cow with quarterback Gage Gundy being the other option in the ground game.

But the pace from Roberts is still impressive.

Even when combining the rushing stats of both he and Thompson last season, the senior running back is on pace to eclipse the total output: 1,779 yards and 22 touchdowns.

In fact, Roberts is on pace for roughly 1,300 yards in the 10 games of the regular season — with the Pioneers expected to play in at least two, but likely three, playoff games that would bring him in right around last year's combined rushing total.

But that's even with the pace being slowed recently.

Last week's blowout win against U.S. Grant was the first game this year in which Roberts didn't run the rock more than 20 times.

Not only was it unneeded for the Pioneers in an 84-0 landslide, but his three carries were productive. Each one ended with Roberts in the end zone, scoring three touchdowns with 50 yards of rushing — never really breaking a sweat, even in the uncommon heat of late September.

"I think it was a good week to really take a step back from all the blows really define my game — make sure I'm on point with my aim points and stuff," Roberts said. "That will be helpful for the district games we have coming up."

But the fewer touches may continue for Roberts as the season progresses — which could play into his total projected yards.

Per Barnard, the hope is the team won't have to rely on Roberts as heavily during their district run over the next six weeks in order to preserve more of his workload for a run at the state title — which would take three playoff victories.

"I think you'll see over the rest of the season that we probably will try to spread those carries out a little bit to some other guys — and it has nothing to do with that he can't do the job," Barnard said. "You get worried about the toll that you put on a guy physically by doing that over and over again."

Follow News Press sports editor Jason Elmquist on Twitter @jelmquistSW for updates on Oklahoma State and high school athletics.