Finch, Clay must step up for Sooners

NORMAN, Okla. -- Dominique Whaley lay on the ground, writhing in pain, his stellar breakout season coming to a unfortunate end.

The Oklahoma running back was the leading rusher for one of the nation's top teams, but a broken left ankle on Oklahoma's first play against Kansas State ended his season.

Now the Sooners are left to pick up the pieces, moving to the running back-by-committee approach they used to begin the season. Sophomores Roy Finch and Brennan Clay are set to carry most of the load, with true freshman Brandon Williams needing to grow up in a hurry.

"Brennan Clay is back and healthy," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "We will get Brandon Williams more opportunities and more carries. All of those guys are best if each of them plays about 25 snaps; that's their body types. They'll all be better if you split it up that way."

Finch has gotten more involved in OU's last three games with 27 carries for 224 yards and two touchdowns and 12 receptions for 112 yards. As OU's most explosive running back, Finch's game-breaking ability could be a key down the stretch despite his small stature at 5-foot-7, 166 pounds.

"I'm going to have to take more of a bigger role the rest of this season with Dom out," Finch said. "And I'm really looking forward to rising up to that challenge."

Clay is in the middle of his second straight injury-riddled season. Various ailments have limited the California native to 54 carries for 184 yards. Whaley's injury could force the Sooners to turn to Clay more often to help keep the diminutive Finch healthy. It's a huge opportunity for Clay, the lone OU running back with 20 or more carries who is averaging less than four yards per carry.

The wildcard is Williams. The true freshman has shown flashes of game-breaking ability but also has shown his youth at times. The coaches know Williams has special ability with the ball in his hand but it will be his actions without the ball that will determine how much he plays.

"I'll have the same approach every week," Williams said. "I've been preparing since week one. Coach (Cale) Gundy always told me my time was going to come so I've been preparing."

Pass protection is a critical element of a successful, durable running back and Williams is still maturing in that aspect of his game. He also will need to regain the coaches' trust after a fumble against Texas.

"He's ready to go," Clay said of Williams. "I see it in his eyes. He's focused, and he's doing everything he needs to do."

Fullback Trey Millard also could see more carries. The sophomore showed running back skills and surprising speed on his 61-yard touchdown run against Kansas State.

Those players will need to carry the load. The Sooners entered the season with a deep group of running backs set to replace DeMarco Murray. As many as five different running backs appeared ready to contribute, with Williams possibly looking at a redshirt season.

Two of those running backs, Jermie Calhoun and Jonathon Miller, left the program. Now, with Whaley's injury, OU is left with Finch, Clay and Williams to share the carries against Texas A&M, Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma State.

Stoops believes a little more patience could have paid off for Miller and Calhoun.

"The guys who [stick it out and work hard] always end up playing, making a difference, finding success and having success," Stoops said. "Too many young people in today's world think everything is handed to them off the bat. If you come to a place as competitive as this, it takes work."

Here's a closer look at OU's running back corps at the beginning of fall camp and how the Sooners have ended up being forced to test their depth down the homestretch:

Dominique Whaley, junior: The walk-on was a key component of OU's offense from day one and served notice of his talent with a 131-yard, four-touchdown performance against Tulsa in the season opener. He leads the team with 113 carries for 627 yards and nine touchdowns but will miss the remainder of the season after having surgery to repair his broken ankle on Sunday.

Roy Finch, sophomore: Finch will be a big part of the offensive game plan in the Sooners' final four games. After being named to the preseason All-Big 12 team, he had 10 total carries in OU's first five games but has come on in recent weeks.

Brennan Clay, sophomore: Clay was a critical part of OU's running back-by-committee to open the season, splitting carries with Whaley. He averaged 13.6 carries per game in the Sooners' first three contests. He has 11 carries since the beginning of October. The next four games are his opportunity to prove he is a quality Big 12 running back who will command carries for the rest of the season and beyond.

Brandon Williams, true freshman: A quick back with excellent speed and acceleration, Williams now will be counted on to play a key role in OU's offense. He will have to grow up quickly with Whaley out. He has 24 carries for 102 yards this season.

Danzel Williams, true freshman: Williams is slated for a redshirt season.

Jonathon Miller, sophomore: Decided to transfer after the season opener. He had seven carries for 20 yards against Tulsa and likely would have played a role in the final four games if he had remained a part of the program. Miller showed flashes of ability but wanted to play more. He got impatient and likely was discouraged by the emergence of Whaley and the overall depth at the position, but OU could really use him now.

Jermie Calhoun, junior: Arrived on campus as the nation's top ranked running back recruit but was buried on the depth chart and elected to transfer in mid-September. He never really made his mark at OU before leaving the program. A knee injury during his sophomore season hampered Calhoun's chances of securing a important role within the Sooners offense.

Brandon Chatmon covers University of Oklahoma sports and recruiting for SoonerNation. He can be reached at bchatmonespn@gmail.com.

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