NORMAN — It's not as sexy as a quarterback showdown. But the next best thing is a juicy running back competition.
Few times in Oklahoma's storied history has the race for carries been this wide open with this many candidates.
Four young running backs have different strengths.
Which running back will receive the first carry Sept. 3 in the season opener against Tulsa?
Which running back will receive the most carries this season?
"We're not in a position yet to where we feel comfortable that somebody is stepping up a clear cut above," said running backs coach Cale Gundy. "In my opinion, three guys are starting to separate themselves from the pack."
Gundy declined to name the three. But sorting through coaches' comments, the favorites are sophomores Roy Finch and Brennan Clay and true freshman Brandon Williams.
The Sooners actually have a Final Four:
Redshirt sophomore Jonathan Miller, who redshirted last season, is fully recovered from a knee injury and can grind out tough yards.
With DeMarco Murray now playing for the Dallas Cowboys, coach Bob Stoops said it will be running back by committee. Stoops will go with the hot hand and doesn't anticipate any back carrying the bulk of the load.
“I'm really excited because there's a lot of potential,” Stoops said. “DeMarco, a fifth-year senior, a big strong guy, could do so much ... I don't see any of these guys having the physical presence at this point, and maturity, to play 45, 50 snaps like DeMarco could.
"It will benefit all of them being able to divide it up."
Over the long haul, Williams is the most talented, but he's still learning the offense.
"He's making progress," Gundy said. "But if we played tomorrow he wouldn't be the guy. He's the fastest, and he's the most explosive guy. We're trying to accelerate his learning and try to find situations to put him in instead of him knowing the whole package."
Finch finished second behind Murray in carries and rushing yards last season. He has breakaway speed and dazzling moves. But at 170 pounds, Finch has battled injuries. His role will include lining up in the slot.
Clay is a dependable, do-everything back who is solid in pass protection and the best receiver out of the backfield. Like Finch, Clay will occasionally line up as a receiver.
Gundy stressed evaluations go beyond highlight-reel touchdown runs.
"It's not just about running the football. It's not just about catching the football," Gundy said. "It's also about keeping people off our quarterback."
How important is pass protection?
"It's huge. That's what we talk about most, ball security and pass protection," Gundy said. "They're all here because they can run the ball. They're going to make plays. But what keeps them on the field is keeping people off No. 12 (Landry Jones)."
Finch was listed third on OU's depth chart heading into two-a-days behind Clay and Miller but was a preseason All-Big 12 selection by the media.
How would Finch feel if he received the first handoff from Jones?
"You think about all the great backs that have played here. If you start the season with that first carry that would mean a lot, setting the tone that we're going to be a physical running team," Finch said. "I feel the ground game is going to be a factor this year."
Discussion of dividing carries must include fullback Trey Millard. A key member of last year's heralded freshman class, Millard was a devastating lead blocker. He also had 24 rushing attempts and three touchdowns.
"He's always been a big, strong guy that runs well," Stoops said. "Last year, I said he walks around here like he's 28 years old. In his first game he plays fullback wonderfully well. He's a great player. He seems a little more relaxed this year."
With a veteran offensive line and several quality backs with different skill sets, OU's ground game should improve after averaging a Big 12 low 3.3 yards per carry last season.
But who gets the most carries?
"It's tough to point to just one guy, but Brandon Williams has made some explosive runs, Roy Finch as well," said offensive coordinator Josh Heupel. "Brennan Clay has been very solid. We like what he's done as a well-rounded back.
"All the guys have done a pretty good job at times. I don't know that you have to have just one guy. Typically we're going to play a bunch of guys."