Controversial Oklahoma star Joe Mixon among national leaders

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon might be Oklahoma's best player.

He's undoubtedly the most controversial Sooner.

Mixon landed in Norman back in 2014 as one of the nation's top running back recruits. Before he even participated in a fall practice, he got into an altercation and punched a woman in the face at a restaurant, resulting in a one-year suspension. Many fans were outraged, and some wanted him kicked off the team.

Two years later, he's a bona fide star and crowd favorite who is beloved by his teammates. He ranks seventh nationally in all-purpose yards per game (181.7) and sixth in kickoff return average (32.7) for the 25th-ranked Sooners .

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said Mixon's most significant growth has been off the field.

''He's really matured well,'' Stoops said. ''He's been an excellent student. He's never on the list for anything. He does everything you want him to do and been a great teammate. All of it. In the locker room, he's one of the more popular guys because he's a friend to everybody.''

Mixon's growth has a player has been notable, too. He returned last year and was one of the Big 12's best all-around players. This season, he's been even better. He's the conference leader in all-purpose yards and ranks fourth in rushing. He combines breakaway speed with shiftiness, the hands of a wide receiver and a powerful 6-foot-1, 226-pound frame.

While his teammates have struggled at times during a 1-2 start, Mixon has stood out. He scored Oklahoma's first touchdown of the season on a 32-yard run. He ran for 117 yards the next game against Louisiana-Monroe. Against Ohio State, he provided one of the few bright spots when he returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. He also ran for 78 yards on just nine carries.

Mixon shares carries with Samaje Perine, an established star who is climbing the school's career record books. Still, the Sooners want to get the ball to Mixon as often as possible. This season, Mixon is averaging 8.1 yards per carry and 13.1 yards per catch. He has 998 career yards rushing on just 142 attempts.

''I think we have to be cognizant and keep track of the number of opportunities he gets, for sure,'' Stoops said. ''He's exceptional when you do target him and give him the opportunity.''

The elephant in the room remains, in part, because Mixon has been sheltered. He has only spoken with the media once since the incident, when he answered football questions only in a session before the Orange Bowl at the end of last season.

He hasn't been interviewed this year, though Stoops said he would consider making him available later in the season.

''It's something we've talked about and I've talked about it with the administration, and we're working on that,'' Stoops said. ''There's a possibility.''

Mixon still has his immature moments -- at least, on the field. On his kickoff return touchdown against Ohio State, he dropped the ball at the 1-yard line as he headed into the end zone . The officials didn't catch it, but Stoops did. Stoops said he plans to discuss the incident with Mixon.

''It'll be positive,'' Stoops said. ''We've got the clips of the other guys that have done it as well. That's something that will be watched and talked through.''


Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter (at)CliffBruntAP .