With spring practice wrapped up and fall camp now just over two months away, Oklahoma players are using the offseason to improve their place on the two-deep. This series previews Oklahoma’s depth chart position by position.
Every few months, it seems, the Oklahoma running back room undergoes some significant change.
The latest is the dismissal of Seth McGowan, a versatile runner who had an impactful 2020 season as a true freshman.
McGowan’s exit means the Sooners’ depth took a hit, but it also means more work for frontline talent like Kennedy Brooks and Eric Gray — although, when the calendar turned to 2021, those two weren’t yet officially back on the OU roster.
So yes, spring practice was an eventful end to DeMarco Murray’s tumultuous first year as the Sooner running backs coach.
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“It was difficult, looking back at it,” Murray said, “but that's part of the game and there's no excuses. You've got to get the job done, and that's how I've always approached my career and my life.”
Murray got Rhamondre Stevenson back halfway through the 2020 season, then sent him off to the NFL. He didn’t have Brooks at all after Brooks opted out, then spent this spring trying to reintegrate him back into the offense. And during the winter, he added Gray as a transfer in from Tennessee while T.J. Pledger transferred away to Utah.
Despite all the movement, Murray looks around the room now and sees versatility, experience and lots of potential. But there's also plenty of room for growth.
“We have a lot of competition in my room,” Murray said, “which, that's what I want. That's what we want as a staff at each position.
“I want to have different types of backs who complement each other. Don't want a lot of the same guys.”
Gray showed that versatility on the very first play of the Red / White Game, catching a pass out of the backfield, then finished the day with four rushes for 23 yards and a 19-yard touchdown run.
Brooks, meanwhile, showed a little rust — he slipped and fell on his first carry, then picked up 9 yards on his second — but his two 1,000-yard seasons as the Sooners’ starter mean he didn’t need to have a big spring scrimmage.
Marcus Major ran three times for 7 yards. Converted H-back Mikey Henderson played as though he just switched positions, rushing five times for minus-3 yards (including one loss he was caught in the end zone for a safety). Henderson dropped from 234 pounds to 223 and could be still getting used to his new physique.
The two biggest performances — as per usual for an OU Red / White Game — came from walk-ons, this time Todd Hudson (three rushes for 38 yards) and Jaden Knowles (three for 31 yards and a touchdown). Knowles also put his receiving skills on display with four catches for 48 yards, while Hudson caught two passes.
It appears likely that Murray in 2021 will feature a two-headed monster in Brooks and Gray and supplement them with the talents of Major and Henderson and maybe get Knowles and Hudson a little action, too.
Brooks is hoping to become just the fourth player in school history to post three 1,000-yard seasons. He’s still working his way back into football shape but feels like he had a productive spring, despite all the changes to the offense since the last time he took the field — against LSU in the Peach Bowl.
“I mean, a lot of things have changed in a year,” Brooks said. “We have a different O-line. I never got to play with Spencer Rattler, never had the opportunity to do that. Yeah, I had two years, but I’m also playing with totally different guys. So you still have to develop that chemistry.”
Sitting out for a season, Brooks said, “made me appreciate the game more. Just being out, being away, it definitely made me appreciate all the work that goes into it, all the time spent in practice, meetings and just building that chemistry with the teammates.”
Since Sooner Nation already knows what Brooks can do, Gray will be the one to watch this fall.
As a high school All-American in Memphis, he ran for 2,251 yards, 3,151 yards and 2,499 yards in three seasons and scored 138 total touchdowns.
In two seasons in Knoxville, he ran for 1,311 yards and eight touchdowns (5.1 yards per carry) and also racked up 369 receiving yards and three TD catches.
Gray didn’t just put up nice numbers over two seasons with the Vols. He also put up five 100-yard games, including a career-high 246 and three touchdowns against Vanderbilt and 173 and a TD against Auburn. And he posted four games with at least 46 yards receiving.
“You add a guy like Eric Gray, who's versatile out of the backfield,” Murray said, “he's probably one of the most natural catchers and receiving running backs that we have now. But for me, I always wanna have a versatile back.”
Beyond his playmaking in the spring game, Gray said he feels like he’s picked up things well so far.
“This offense has been great,” he said. “That’s kinda why I ultimately chose to come here. Getting to learn this offense this spring has been an unbelievable opportunity.
“What surprises me about this offense is how good we can be. We haven’t hit our stride yet. We have a lot of things we can work on; we had some guys out. Once we hit our stride, we’re going to be one of the best offenses in the country.”
Major could emerge this season as an x-factor. He’s only played in eight career games and has just 45 career carries, but his two big moments in 2020 — he powered to a 7-yard touchdown against Texas, and he popped a 46-yard touchdown in the Cotton Bowl against Florida and piled up 110 rushing yards on just nine carries — showed he’s ready for the spotlight.
“I give Marcus a lot of credit, man,” head coach Lincoln Riley said. “A lot of young guys might have went in the tank and started thinking about all kinds of stuff — ‘Poor me. Should I transfer?’ All he did was stay back and work and work and work. And he got better, even though it wasn’t necessarily on Saturdays on the TV screen. All of a sudden, here it comes up to the bowl game, he gets his opportunity and is lights out in the Cotton Bowl against Florida. That gave him a lot of confidence.“