COLUMN: Running back battle key for Sooners' title hopes
With the season fast approaching, the Sooners are in the process of solidifying starters for their season opener against Tulsa Sept. 3. Position battles throughout the roster are still being hotly contested, and one position in particular may very well hold the key to the Sooners winning their eighth national championship. The biggest question mark on the offensive side of the ball is the running back position, where OU must replace DeMarco Murray, the university’s all-time leader in touchdowns and all-purpose yards.
OU coach Bob Stoops is not usually one to compare current teams to those of the past. However, the running back situation bares a resemblance to the 2003 Sooners. With Oklahoma ranked No. 1 heading into the season, the 2003 team featured a top-five receiving corps led by Mark Clayton and a strong-armed quarterback, Jason White. Hype surrounded the team, but they were lacking a key component — strength at running back. In the season before, the Sooners lost Quentin Griffin to graduation, a player who was one of the most statistically accomplished running backs in OU history at that point.
This year’s team has all the makings of a national championship contender, with one potential downfall: running back. In 2003, the Sooners made due with Kejuan Jones and Renaldo Works. While both were solid backs, they were better served in a backup role, unable to handle the full workload of a number one running back.
With Murray now graduated, all eyes are on the remaining running backs. Murray handled the majority of the workload for the Sooners in 2010, leaving a large hole to be filled at that position. The current backs have a far bigger upside than the 2003 group, but have yet to experience the burden of being a feature back in college football.
Sophomores Roy Finch and Brennan Clay seem poised to get first looks at handling a majority of the carries. Clay showed signs of being a consistent back in 2010, and Finch was explosive when he got his hands on the ball. Sophomore Jonathan Miller and junior Jermie Calhoun were both injured in 2010, but both may find their way on the field as well. Brandon Williams, a true freshman, remains a wild card, but he could be capable of making a big impact in the backfield.
In 2003, without a feature running back, the Sooners coasted through the regular season, winning all of their games by double digits except one, a 7-point win at Alabama. But at the end of the season, opponents began blitzing White non-stop. Without a true presence at running back, the team faltered, eventually losing both the Big 12 Championship and BCS National Championship games.
The Sooners will begin this season using multiple running backs but will need one who is consistent and reliable late in the game if they want to have any chance of making it to the BCS National Championship game once again. Without a feature back, they may find themselves fated to be like the 2003 team, beginning the year at No. 1 but finishing with no hardware.