NEW ORLEANS -- After never carrying the ball more than 93 times in a season and never rushing for more than 555 yards in a year, Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay announced his bold goal for his senior season last August.
"I'm shooting for 1,000 (yards) this year, believe it or not," he said. "That's what my ultimate goal is."
Believe it or not is right. At the beginning of the season, Clay was thought to be the second-best running back on the roster -- at best.
Former OU running back Damien Williams had come in right away after transferring from Arizona Western and rushed for 946 yards on 176 carries. That's a gaudy 5.4 yards per carry average.
SCOOPHD: OL CHANGES WILL DETERMINE RUN GAME SUCCESS AT SUGAR BOWL
Click Here to view this video.
He was the bell cow in an offense that all of a sudden had converted from pass-happy to run-centric. Clay was the capable backup, the consummate Sooner solider.
He didn't fumble often, caught the ball well out of the backfield, picked up blocks and stayed out of trouble.
In the first game of the season against Louisiana-Monroe, he performed his duties well but rushed for a modest 43 yards on just eight attempts. He did what was expected of him.
Then, in OU's next game against West Virginia, Clay had an opportunity to show he could be counted on to carry the load like he had one time before.
He finished the game with 22 carries for 170 yards. Both were single-game highs for Clay at the time, but it wasn't the first he'd turned heads in a Sooner jersey.
As senior at San Diego's Scripps Ranch High School, Clay rushed for over 2,000 yards and scored 26 touchdowns. But he made a name for himself a year earlier as a junior when he rushed for 1,453 yards and caught 70 passes for 1,055 yards. He scored a total of 26 touchdowns.
Senior wide receiver Jalen Saunders remembers watching Clay play prep ball while at Pleasant Grove High School in Elk Grove, Calif. He saw a big powerful back with soft hands and instinctual vision in between the tackles.
"In California, everyone is not big like that at the running back position," Saunders said.
Oklahoma thought it was getting just that, a man capable of replacing DeMarco Murray. As a sophomore, Clay looked poised to do it. Then, out of the great heat of 2011 fall camp came Dominique Whaley.
Whaley was a power runner, and fellow running back Roy Finch, a shifty speedster, was his perfect compliment. The duo combined for 224 carries and over 1,200 yards on the ground. They each rushed for 5.5 yards per carry.
Clay finished his sophomore season with just 275 yards on 75 attempts. It was beginning to look like he might never blossom into the kind of well-rounded back he wanted to be.
He was constantly fighting injuries. He suffered a concussion that kept him out for nearly a third of the season as a freshman.
"Then I had pinched nerve in my neck my whole sophomore year. So I was just constantly battling that," Clay said. "That's probably the worst stinger you can probably get when my arms would just go numb. I would have to take maybe three or four series off just to let it come back, to have some feeling."
With injuries nagging him and with OU signing Williams in 2012, it looked like Clay might underperform his talent in Norman.
Then, he flashed.
In Ames, Iowa, against the Cyclones in November 2012, Williams wasn't playing like he had the majority of the year. He'd suffered an ankle injury, and it showed in the stat box: three carries, seven yards.
OU's passing game was good -- one of the best in the country -- but even it wasn't good enough to survive without a serviceable running game. The Sooners needed a back who could be counted on to run downhill and between the tackles.
They turned to Clay.
In a game some remember for former Sooner Landry Jones' fileting of the Cyclone secondary, Clay rushed for 157 yards on 24 carries. It was the best single game of his career through his third season. He was finally injury-free.
"I had been battling injuries left and right for the last couple of years and finally been able to put on some weight and been able to take some shots, take some hits on the field," Clay said. "To be able to fight through that, that's what separated me from my freshman and sophomore year and having a decent junior year and a pretty good team year."
With each game played in 2013, Clay gained more of his coaches' trust. When Williams was kicked off the team before OU played Kansas State, in stepped Clay once more.
This time he left no doubt who the starting running back would be for the remainder of his career at OU. He rushed for 200 yards on 31 carries in the Sooners' win against the Wildcats.
The victory was the bridge to a meaningful win against Oklahoma State and a bid to the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Now, with one game left, Clay needs 87 yards rushing to achieve the goal he set for himself five months ago. He has one more game to show NFL personnel he can help them.
"Being able to run the ball, that's instincts," Clay said. "I know scouts and NFL coaches have already seen that. They've seen game film on me. So I'm excited for the next level, but we've got one more game though."
One more game.
Against No. 3 Alabama.
The game plan will likely look a lot like the one the Sooners used to beat Kansas State. That means Clay will be front and center.
"We're really emphasizing being able to run the ball, and I'm sure that they're going to be up there to stop the ball," he said. "We just gotta do a great job making our calls and our schemes and getting down to business."