But both seized their chances, and both should have a major impact on the second half of the conference season.
Coincidentally, they'll be facing off when the Sooners and Aggies get together for a Big 12 South matchup in College Station on Saturday.
Tannehill lost the quarterback derby to Jerrod Johnson in fall camp before the 2008 season. Johnson spent the next two-plus seasons becoming the school's leader in total offense, but recent struggles spurred coach Mike Sherman to make the switch to Tannehill, who has quietly embraced a dual role as backup quarterback and one of Johnson's top receivers, with 112 catches for 1,596 yards and 10 touchdowns.
In his first start at quarterback, he completed 36 of 50 passes for a school-record 449 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Texas Tech.
"He’s a smart kid. He's been a quarterback," Sherman said. "It’s not his first start as a player; he’s been playing. That helps him. He’s very composed going into the game. I'm very confident in his ability and having played receiver for us, he’s been in the games. He’s been challenged. He’s had to compete every week. That part of it wasn’t new for him, but behind center, taking a snap in a game was, and I thought he handled it very well."
Finch's play in fall camp at Oklahoma had his coaches drooling to get him on the field.
"We knew early on, in watching him and actually some of the players come and talk to you during the summer, 'Coach, this guy can really go,'" Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "When your older players are telling you about him, you know he’s got a chance to be really good."
But just before the season, Finch suffered a fractured ankle that sidelined him for the first five games of the season, delaying his debut. Against Iowa State, it finally came.
"I was nervous, excited, my nerves were boiling inside of me," Finch said.
The shifty, 5-foot-8, 180-pound freshman who is already drawing comparisons to former Sooner Quentin Griffin carried the ball 16 times for 92 yards. He's led Oklahoma in rushing the past two games, averaging 6 yards a carry.
"When you watch him with the football, his speed and quickness are different than most people. Little guys usually can do some things bigger guys can’t and so he really is an excellent complement to our other great back in DeMarco [Murray], just as a change of pace," Stoops said. "And when you’re averaging 90 or so snaps a game, DeMarco needs a [breather] on some of those in a lot of cases."
A backfield that looked pretty crowded in fall camp may have found its lead back after Murray moves on to the NFL following the season. Finch is working to improve on aspects of the offense more complicated than taking the ball and running, like pass protection, in hopes of becoming an every-down back.
Unlike Finch, Tannehill had time to tweak the little things in his game this spring. With Johnson sitting out team drills after shoulder surgery, Tannehill took over first-team reps.
"The spring reps were crucial for me and my development as a player, so you have to take advantage of the reps you get and get as many as you can," Tannehill said. "It’s my third season in the offense and guys mostly knew it, we just fine-tuned some things and cleaned a lot of details up like check downs and routes and that kind of stuff. It was a big key in getting in tune with receivers and having everybody on the same page."
Both are forced to deal with the awkward reality of poaching game time from program legends. Tannehill had to take it all from Johnson last week.
"He’s been supportive of me. It’s a tough situation for him and I understand that. I just try and think of it as if I was in his shoes, it’d be a very tough situation for me, but he’s been supportive throughout the whole process and continues to be a friend and help me out with what he sees on the field and help this team win," Tannehill said. "There’s been several times when I’d come off the field and he’d tell me some things about what he’s seeing out there and I was able to use that information and adjust to it the next series."
Finch is getting only slightly fewer carries than the school's all-time leader in touchdowns.
"He’s told me this is a business," Finch said of Murray. "A lot of guys get recruited at your position each year to try and take your spot. You just have to be on your P's and Q's to keep your spot and continue to play."