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Oklahoma's backfield is crowded with experience and talent
NORMAN, Okla. — While much of the preseason buzz at Oklahoma has focused on who will be the Sooners' starting quarterback, there's also some debate at another important offensive position - running back.
The Sooners have four proven, capable ball carriers in senior tailbacks Brennan Clay, Roy Finch and Damien Williams and senior fullback Trey Millard. And that's not even counting freshman Alex Ross, who has shown promise during preseason practice.
|2012||10-3||L in Cotton Bowl|
|2011||10-3||W in Insight Bowl|
|2010||12-2||W in Fiesta Bowl|
|2009||8-5||W in Sun Bowl|
|2008||12-2||L in National Championship|
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So when No. 16 Oklahoma hosts Louisiana-Monroe on Aug. 31, who receives the bulk of the carries? Or will it be running back by committee? Co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel isn't ready to say.
"All those guys need touches because they play effectively," Heupel said. "They're experienced. They've been explosive and create big plays for us. Is there a guy that might end up carrying it 20 to 25 times a game? Might be. You know, it's how those guys separate themselves during fall came and throughout the season.
"The one thing I'd say every year that has gone on here — and this goes back to when Adrian Peterson was here, too — guys get injured, guys get dinged. You need everybody. All four of those guys are going to have their opportunities."
Heupel was referencing 2006, when Peterson was contending for the Heisman Trophy before he broke his collarbone diving into the end zone in an October win against Iowa State. Allen Patrick, himself a future NFL back, Chris Brown and Jacob Gutierrez stepped in during Peterson's absence and performed capably.
Seven years later, the Sooners are just about as deep at the position. Williams started nine games last season and led Oklahoma in rushing with 946 yards (averaging 5.4 yards per carry) while scoring 11 touchdowns. He rushed for 167 yards, including a 95-yard touchdown run, in a win against Texas.
Clay rushed for 555 yards and six touchdowns, including a 157-yard effort in a win against Iowa State, and averaged 6 yards per carry.
Millard, 6-foot-2, 259-pounds, was a second-team All-Big 12 Conference selection - as a tight end, where he caught 30 passes for 337 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed for 198 yards and averaged six yards per carry in the backfield. He had one of the Sooners' most memorable plays of 2012, catching a short pass from Landry Jones and going for a 73-yard gain, hurdling Texas cornerback Adrian Phillips in the process.
Finch didn't see the field much last season but returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Kansas, tying the longest return in Oklahoma history. As a sophomore in 2011, he rushed for 605 yards and caught 34 passes for 296 yards.
Williams said consistency will be the deciding factor for playing time.
"Everybody wants somebody consistent," he said. "Whoever is the most consistent out of all of us - and we're all being consistent right now - coach can't really say and I can't really say. We're all consistent and we're all experienced. It's hard for anybody to say who is going to be that person."
Finch is looking forward to getting back into the rotation after last season, when he had just seven carries for 62 yards - and five of those carries came in the season opener against overmatched Florida A&M. Coaches cited maturity issues when asked why Finch wasn't receiving more playing time and Finch thinks he's grown up a lot during the past year.
"I feel like the middle part of last year, I matured a lot and kind of grew up and became the man that I needed to be, on and off the field, to be that player that I need to be for this team," he said. "It was unfortunate that we already had a running back kind of established and you don't want to stop the flow of the season, whoever is hot at the time."
Finch said he had been "kind of inconsistent in my everyday life" and took responsibility for his reduced playing time in 2012.
"[Coaches] said if you do what you need to do, you're going to play for us and I trust my coaches, because they've never lied to me," Finch said. "The things that I've done have kept me off the field. It hasn't been anything they've done. So I can't look at them and say I don't trust them, because it was me."
Finch said he isn't worried about playing time this season.
"I feel like the coaches are going to put us in the right spots and kind of give us the touches that we need," he said. "If all of us get 1,000 [yards], we get 1,000. I just feel like we all can do that because we're special players like that. We just have to continue to just work hard and take pride in having the best backfield in the country this year."