By JOHN SHINN
NORMAN — In one sense, Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay is alone for the first time. In another, he’s the most comfortable he’s ever been on a football field.
The unaccompanied feeling comes from Clay being the last member of the famed “Cali Trio” still stalking Owen Field. Clay, along with former safety Tony Jefferson and wide receiver Kenny Stills, were all part of OU’s 2010 recruiting class. All three hailed from the San Diego area and the threesome made a quick impact.
Jefferson and Stills were three-season mainstays who chose early exits for the NFL. Perhaps, Clay didn’t have the same option. His first three seasons were a slow and steady climb into becoming a mainstay in the Sooner backfield.
Nonetheless, he’s peaking at the right time.
“I love my boys. I miss them to death. But it’s going to be a good year,” Clay said.
It certainly has been thus far. The running backs have become the focal point of the 14th-ranked Sooners’ offense. Clay’s been the main beneficiary, rushing for 213 yards and averaging 7.1 yards per carry in the first two games.
Clay’s production has been one of the positive surprises of a Sooner offense that’s been a mystery in the season’s first two games.
OU hasn’t struggled to throw the ball like this is years. Then again, because of Clay and backfield mate Damien Williams, it’s piling up rushing yards like it’s 1985.
“He’s done some positive things with some pace, letting his blockers get ahead of them and setting those guys up in the zone scheme,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said of Clay. “But we’ve blocked it pretty well, too. It’s a combination of all those things.”
The combination OU has found might be one that finally fits Clay.
He’s been productive in the offense for the last three years, but outside of a 24-carry, 157-yard performance last season against Iowa State, never been the featured back. He was always more of a third-down back because of his ability to catch.
But the offense changed this season with the addition of the quarterback-run threat. The blocking scheme shifted as well.
It requires running backs to run with pace. Patience to wait for holes to develop is required, and the vision to hit them when they do is essential.
“Brennan has been hot in seeing the right spaces I guess and feeling the right spaces and jumping in them and waiting for them to open,” OU coach Bob Stoops said.
Mentally, Clay believes he’s always had that ability. It’s the physical part that has changed. He’s dealt with injuries throughout his career. Shoulders, knees, ankles, even a neck injury. They all slowed him down at one point or another.
“I knew the whole time, it was just a matter of time of being able to get on that field and be 100 percent healthy, no nicks or nags on my body,” he said. “I just feel comfortable out there.”
But that will change. A running back’s health is like a temperature gauge: the meter drops throughout the season. Running backs take hits in every game and most practices. Every one of them exacts a toll.
Clay is prepared for that. It’s his senior year and with that experience comes the knowledge that pace is everything in football.
The way OU is moving fits him perfectly.
“I think it was just a matter of time of getting back on that field and being able to take a couple of carries and get in the groove and actually feeling out the defense,” Clay said. “I think with time, that kind of slowed the pace down mentally in my game. It’s all coming together now.”