For most of three seasons, Brennan Clay has bided his time, waiting for his chance to be the starting running back for No. 14 Oklahoma.
That chance came Saturday against Iowa State and Clay shined with a 157-yard effort. His emergence gives Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops a good problem as the Sooners (6-2, 4-1 Big 12) prepare to host Baylor (4-4, 1-4) this Saturday — a slew of running backs who have produced in big games.
Clay replaced the injured Damien Williams, who ranks in the top five in the Big 12 Conference in rushing and had 167 yards in a win over Texas. But neither was the starter in the season opener — that was former walk-on Dominique Whaley, who broke an ankle halfway through the 2011 campaign. Stoops said Monday that Whaley is healthy despite receiving limited carries in recent weeks.
Add in Roy Finch, who's been mired down the depth chart but has excelled on returns, and the Sooners have at least four tailbacks who would seem capable of lifting their ground game. And that's not even including fullback Trey Millard, who had 119 yards receiving against Texas.
All five backs are averaging at least 6.2 yards per carry and the Sooners are averaging 175.1 yards rushing per game, which helps take pressure off quarterback Landry Jones, who has a 301.8-yard per-game passing average.
"Whenever you can establish the run, it definitely opens things up," wide receiver Justin Brown said. "That's one of the main things you want to do as an offense, establish the run, because it makes everything a lot easier."
Clay had shown flashes of brilliance — including a 59-yard outing against Texas and a 41-yard run against Kansas — but set career highs for both carries (24) and yards against Iowa State. He showed both elusiveness and power against the Cyclones, capping his game with an 18-yard third-quarter touchdown run
"Brennan's doing great," Stoops said. "He did a great job the other day finding space, being patient, waiting for some blocks to develop. I thought the guys up front are always a part of whatever the running back's doing. The line, better blocking, Aaron Ripkowski, Trey Millard, Jayden Bird (were) doing a nice job also, creating some space for him.
"Brennan has always been a good player for us. He just had one of those games where he really got hot. He's capable of that. He's had a lot of good games here — not to that extent, but he's capable of it."
Clay said he found out late last week that Williams, who is nursing an ankle injury, wouldn't play against Iowa State. Stoops said running backs coach Cale Gundy thought Clay was more ready than Whaley to start against the Cyclones.
Clay, who battled a pinched nerve in his neck last season, said it wasn't as tough to wait for extended playing time as outsiders might think.
"I'm very patient," Clay said. "I've always been that way. I know Gundy does a great job. He knows what he's doing. He puts the best players on the field, obviously, and whoever is going to help the team win.
"When you come to a program like this, I really consider this another 'Running Back U.,' like (USC), a couple of other schools," Clay said. "Anybody can go down at any moment. You've just got to be able to step up and take your turn. I was able to do it. I was blessed enough to be able to do so."
Clay said he "takes pride in perfecting my craft and doing what I can do on the field" and that he wants to "leave a legacy as someone who was a hard worker."
Williams, who had three carries for 7 yards against the Cyclones, figures to start against Baylor if he's healthy, as he was listed atop the Sooners' depth chart issued Monday. Clay and Whaley, who had one carry against Iowa State, still are listed as the backups. Clay said nothing will change as far as his preparation for the game against the Bears, whether he's the starter or not.
"I just keep doing what I do," Clay said. "I'm going to approach practice this week the same as I've done for the past eight or nine weeks. Keep doing everything I can do to help this team win."