NORMAN, Okla. – There was a time during Bob Stoops' tenure as Oklahoma coach that the notion of letting the fullback run the ball was dismissed without much consideration. Why give the ball to a blocker when the running back had so much more playmaking potential?
Then Trey Millard came in and changed everything.
Millard has expanded his previous role of merely smashing into opposing defenders to clear room for others by displaying a wide-ranging skill set that makes him a threat as a ball-carrier and a pass-catcher. And for the eighth-ranked Sooners' showdown Saturday night against No. 5 Notre Dame (7-0), Millard's job will include finding a way to neutralize Manti Te'o, who's garnering rare Heisman Trophy buzz at the linebacker position.
"That's part of the reason you come here is to play with the best but also play against the best," Millard said, grass stains on his pants from an afternoon at practice. "That's definitely a matchup that I'm looking forward to."
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said the assignment of blocking Te'o will go to "whoever draws the unlucky straw."
Millard expects he'll be doing much of the dirty work, whether it's trying to track down Te'o and open room for Oklahoma's running backs or trying to get open against him to catch a pass from Landry Jones.
Regardless of the assignment, he knows it won't be easy.
"He's a great player. Everybody knows that," Millard said. "An All-American guy."
Millard had three touches that yielded zero yards in a 24-19 loss to Kansas State last month. He then had a 73-yard reception on a short pass in the Red River Rivalry against Texas, leaping over one defender while shoving another away. He's also caught a touchdown pass each of the past two weeks.
He's part fullback, part running back, part tight end and part wide receiver. That versatility makes him a critical part of the offense for Oklahoma (5-1), which can line up in a variety of formations without substituting in its no-huddle offense.
"I like doing it all. I love being able to move around," said Millard, listed at 6-foot-2 and 256 pounds. "It's kind of funny. I don't see it always in games against other guys but sometimes in practice, like during two-a-days, where we're going against our own guys and they get confused and it's kind of my fault. It's kind of fun to know that you caused that and helped make a play for the offense."
Millard hoped that he might grow into a key contributor when he came to Norman from Rock Bridge High School in Columbia, Mo. The closest comparison to him during Stoops' time is tight end Brody Eldridge, who went to the NFL after also serving as a fullback, H-back and even offensive lineman.
Millard doesn't figure to move up front, but Eldridge was never as big of a threat with the ball in his hands.
"I knew coming in that I had the opportunity to do some of that stuff. Whether or not all of it would happen or not, you never know as a high-school kid," Millard said. "I think I've been blessed to have this opportunity for my role to expand as much as it has and just try to continue on it."
The Sooners will be counting on him to hold his own against Te'o, who averages about 10 tackles per game and also has four interceptions and one fumble recovery this season.
"I think his drive is part of what makes him so great," Millard said. "He's coming up snap after snap, hitting people in the mouth. ... He gets cut, gets knocked down, you can see him roll, get up, chase the play and get a tackle. He doesn't have quit in him."
Added Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard: "He's extremely talented but he plays about as hard as you've seen anyone play on film. He runs around so much that guys don't even touch him. A bunch of his plays, he's not even being blocked. Just really gifted athletically, and just seems like one of those guys that just understands it."
Millard said he lumps himself in with Oklahoma's offensive linemen as the group that will be tasked with standing up to Notre Dame's talented front seven, the bruising part of a defense that's allowing only 9.4 points per game. Exactly what he does to get the job done doesn't matter to Millard.
"I love making big blocks and I love springing guys. If I have the ball in my hands, I love doing that too," he said. "I definitely think if we have some of those longer runs, it definitely gets the whole offense kind of fired up, makes the play-action that much more dangerous, makes the wide receivers that much more dangerous.
"We know that we need that against this team."