Yesterday we discussed Landry Jones, his QB counterparts, and the pressure they would be facing heading into 2011. Today we focus on the Sooner backfield and there is an argument to be made that there is as much, if not more, pressure facing the young OU RBs. The elder statesmen of the group are juniors Jermie Calhoun and Dominique Whaley, both of whom have played very little, if at all. So a likely preseason #1 Sooners squad heads into the season relying on redshirt sophomore in Jonathan Miller, two true sophomores in Roy Finch and Brennan Clay, and a dynamic true freshman in Brandon Williams. That said, one could argue that the Sooners have, at a minimum, one of the most talented collective group of RBs in the entire country and that's not even taking into account fullback Trey Millard who, according to Stoops, will be a fixture of the OU offense in 2011.
The most interesting aspect of having all that talent at a single position is how you split up the carries in order to keep everyone happy. A normally uneventful spring practice session suddenly become much more interesting when you have a lion's share of the RB carries up for grabs. Now don't expect the depth chart to be set in stone after these next couple weeks, but you can believe RB coach Cale Gundy will have a very good idea of how he'll plan to distribute the playing time. So after the jump, we'll get into all the candidates.
Jermie Calhoun - At the request of a loyal reader, we're gonna start with the former five star RB recruit from Van, TX. Up to now, Calhoun has been best known amongst Sooner fans as one of the three five star members of the 2008 class all of whom have yet to live up to their billing. Much was expected out of Calhoun as he was, depending on which recruiting service you follow, the #1 RB in the state of Texas. He has shown brief glimpses of the talent he possesses during mop up duty in his now four years in Norman (he's a 4th year junior), but nowhere near the expectations placed upon him before his arrival. He has also shown a slight tendency to put the ball on the ground despite his limited carries in his career.
To make matters worse, he suffered a serious knee injury last season which will force him to miss the entire spring. This, combined with the fact that he'll likely miss all the summer workouts as well, is going to make it significantly more difficult for him to convince Coach Gundy to put the ball in his hands. It is highly likely that whenever he is able to make his return, the coaches will give him every opportunity to earn a spot in the RB rotation. However by that time, he could realistically be behind five guys with considerable ground to make up. One, potentially big, factor that is working in his favor is the fact that at 5'11" 214 he is easily the biggest RB on the roster. So he could fight his way back onto the field as a short yardage/goal line type of back given his size. One would have to think if he's the guy the coaches look to when they need to punch it in the end zone, that would be a role he and Sooner fans could get excited about.
Roy Finch- Few players in the Bob Stoops era have drawn as much praise prior to the start of a season than Roy Finch did during last summer. Both coaches and players alike raved about his athleticism and his shiftiness. Unfortunately, he suffered a stress fracture injury shortly before the season would start and be forced to miss OU's first five games. However, once he was able to return to the field his impact was immediately noticeable. At 5'8" 173, he is a guy most would expect to try and elude would be tacklers but Finch (possibly to his detriment at times) is just the opposite. Even though he possesses the ability to juke around the defender, he has proven to be unafraid in meeting a guy head on and getting the tough yards. While Finch clearly does not have the same kind of size, this is a similar issue Sooner fans experienced during Adrian Peterson's time in Norman. AD would almost seek out guys to blow up instead of simply taking the easy step out along the sideline and we would hear from the coaches all the time how they wished he'd save himself and just ease up once in a while.
This same approach would greatly benefit Finch and one I expect the coaches have discussed with him as he will be counted on much more so in 2011 than he was during last season playing behind workhorse Demarco Murray. Finch is expected to be the "starter" and starter is in quotes because given the way OU is expected to rotate in backs, it really holds very little significance. If Finch is able to stay healthy, he is the kind of home-run hitting back that Sooner fans have been begging for these last couple of years. No slight to the guys who preceded him, but Finch is a guy that can legitimately take it to the house any time he has the ball in his hands. He's a guy that has excellent hands so Sooner fans can even expect him to be split out at times, much like they used Murray last year, to take advantage of matchups and ensure that this talented player remains on the field.
Brennan Clay- There is a tendency to forget that while his classmate, Finch, was drawing praise from the coaches, Clay was equalled raved about leading up to the start of 2010. Another forgotten fact is that Clay actually came in with more fanfare than Finch, having been the first CA high school player to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in a single season (his senior season). In fact with Finch's late summer injury, it was Clay who had secured a place behind Demarco Murray and saw action in the first couple games.
Then unfortunately he was the victim of a vicious hit during the Florida State game that left him briefly unconscious. Needless to say, the concussion he suffered had a very negative effect on his season as he fell behind Finch on the depth chart and at times seemed to play hesitant after his return. So Clay heads into 2011 100% healthy and was one of the mild surprises being atop the spring depth chart that was released two weeks ago. He'll have plenty of motivation to remind Sooner fans why he was so highly regarded coming out of CA and battle to hold on to that top RB spot. At 5'11" 185 he's a little bigger than Finch, but he still has good speed to be able to turn the corner. Obviously the fact that he had 1,000 receiving yards his senior year of high school indicates that the guy can catch the ball out of the backfield. He struggled with it at times during his spot play in 2010, but expect him to have improved upon this aspect of his game and look for the OU coaches to take advantage of that this season.
Jonathan Miller- Miller is a guy who has been a little bit of a sleeper within Sooner Nation. Like Calhoun, but even more so, he's a guy that has shown flashes of brilliance in spot duty and a kid Sooner fans have had high hopes for. Unfortunately, also like Calhoun, he also suffered a serious knee injury however his injury was in 2009. So Miller voluntarily sat out 2010 utilizing his redshirt year and taking advantage of the year to regain the strength in his surgically repaired knee. Now nearly two years removed from his surgery, Miller is looking to make a name for himself in a loaded 2011 Sooner backfield. He's a dark horse candidate to possibly earn a "starting" role later in the season and could prove to be an important part of the OU offense.
Brandon Williams- At the time this was written, the Sooners have had a single practice and already the true freshman is getting rave reviews. Williams has a unique combination of size and speed and will reap the rewards of enrolling early and participating in both spring and summer workouts. Coming in, the only thing believed to possibly keep in on the sidelines was his need to add some bulk to his frame. After only a short time with Schmitty, he's already listed at 5'11" 189 so if he's able to add another 5-7 lbs of muscle this summer look out Sooner fans! A kid at that size that has his kind of speed could be something really, really special.
It was going to be incredibly difficult for the Sooner coaches to keep a kid this talented off the field and by all accounts he's lived up to the hype thus far. Most consider him to be a legitimate candidate to split carries with Finch and/or Clay and see significant playing time in 2011. The portrayal of Finch as a home-run type back is an accurate one and if you can imagine a bigger, faster version that's Brandon Williams. His talent cannot be under sold, but as is the case with all freshman it will be crucial that he keep his head on straight and focus on his responsibilities both on and off the field so as not to jeopardize his future/potential.
Brandon Wegher- This is the kid who transferred from Iowa in January after choosing to sit out the 2010 season. He had appealed to the NCAA, but lost and will not be eligible to play in 2011. However he'll spend the year getting back into the game, learning the OU system, and likely provide the Sooners with yet another quality threat in 2012.
Dominique Whaley - This is a guy who played very well in last year's spring game, but was never heard from again after the spring. He's a guy the coaches routinely talk about being a fan of, but has yet to see the field during his time in Norman. He's a bigger guy, 5'10" 197, so it's a possibility given his favor with the coaches he could play a role like the one described for Calhoun but that may be a bit of a reach.
Trey Millard- Choose the destructive adjective of your preference and it very likely describes Sooner fullback Trey Millard. He burst onto the scene as the hidden gem of the 2010 OU recruiting class and left a wave of flattened opponents in his path. Some feared that his lack of involvement in the Fiesta Bowl was a sign that new OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel might not have a role for him in the new offense. Not so said Coach Stoops both after the game and in his spring press conference held Monday afternoon.
Stoops described Millard as one of the best players on the team and Millard appears to be a guy that has found a special place in Stoops' heart much like one Brody Eldridge who was previously the recipient of such Stoops affection. Sooner fans can expect to see plenty more of Millard in 2011 as the coaches have even talked about using him in a H-back/TE role just to ensure he remains on the field.
Millard is recovering from offseason should surgery, so he will not take part in spring ball but that is not expected to have any effect on his starting spot.
Marshall Musil- The star of last year's spring game as he racked up several long runs, also never to be heard from again primarily due to the emergence of Trey Millard. Musil will again play the backup role to Millard at FB, but clearly showed the coaches last year he can be relied upon should they need him to carry the ball. With Millard out this spring, Musil has a chance to be featured at the FB spot and remind the coaches he's a viable backup should they need him. Even showed a bit of an unexpected burst on some of those longer runs last year, so don't sleep on Musil sneaking in a carry or two this year.