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DeMarco Murray Rebuilt Oklahoma's Running Back Depth After 'Nervous' 2021

The Sooners have plenty of option at running back this year after entering the 2021 season with just two scholarship running backs.

NORMAN — Fall camp is going to look much different for DeMarco Murray compared to last year.

Headed into the 2021 season, the Oklahoma Sooners were fretting about the state of the running back room.

Due to players leaving via the transfer portal and off the field matters, the Sooners were riding into the season with Kennedy Brooks and Eric Gray as the only two scholarship running backs available. 

And while thankfully for Murray both Brooks and Gray stayed healthy (and Marcus Major regained eligibility ahead of the Texas game), the OU running backs coach is relieved to have depth heading into 2022.

“I was nervous every day,” Murray chuckled recalling the stress of last season during OU’s local media day on Tuesday.

Brooks is now in training camp with the Philadelphia Eagles, but Gray and Major return for another season in Norman.

Joining them will be plenty of new faces.

Murray brought in a pair of freshman in Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk, and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby worked with Murray to help add a couple of transfers.

Bentavious Thompson reunites with Lebby and Dillon Gabriel after spending five years at UCF, and Palomar College transfer Tawee Walker joined Oklahoma in the spring. Todd Hudson and Jaden Knowles are also still with the team, though neither walk-on featured in a regular capacity last year.

Gray is going to be the leader of the room, as Lebby made clear on Tuesday.

“The room is going to start with EG,” Lebby said. “Eric has done an unbelievable job. I’ve said this since being around him for five days – the guy’s a pro. Everything he does is in a professional manor. Could not be more excited about where he’s at and what he’s going to be able to do for us this fall.”

Eric Gray rushed for 412 yards and two touchdowns last year for the Sooners

Eric Gray rushed for 412 yards and two touchdowns last year for the Sooners

Behind him, Murray will actually be able to stage a battle.

Major will get chances to shine as he’s been on campus the longest, but Barnes drew rave reviews throughout spring practice and his work bled over into the summer.

“Jovantae has done an unbelievable job since he came here in January,” Murray said. “I’m very proud of him and where he’s at. He’s a big, fast, strong-looking kid and he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s put on some great muscle mass and he handles himself.

“He’s a quiet guy but he has a chip on his shoulder at all times. But he works extremely well with others and I’m just happy to have him here.”

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Jovantae Barnes drew rave reviews from Oklahoma's coaching staff during spring practice

Sawchuk is also working to get up to speed despite only arriving with the team in the summer, and he’s a piece Murray is looking forward to adding into the fold.

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“Gavin is an extremely mature kid. Very smart,” he said. “So picking up the system, him and Eric Gray and Tawee are light years just kind of ahead of what I (expected)… But Gavin has done a good job, man.

“You talk about a kid who comes in every single day and works his tail off. Elite speed, so you know, we’re gonna have some fun with him.”

Thompson will add experienced depth to the room after racking up 1,136 rushing yards at UCF, something that Lebby put a great value on in the recruiting process out of the transfer portal.

“Bentavious is a guy that has played a bunch of ball. He’s lived it,” Lebby said. “He was with us at UCF, had good production. Know exactly how he ticks, how he plays and what’s important to him. He’s done a great job this summer.

“We’re looking forward to getting on the field with him and adding depth to that room with guys that have lived some experience.”

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Bentavious Thompson reunites with Jeff Lebby and Dillon Gabriel in Norman this year 

Last year, Murray always had to have the lack of depth in the back of his mind. He said it changed how he had to coach in practice and made him think twice about how he divvied up touches in practice.

“Having played the position and understanding training camp reps and making sure that I don’t wear my guys down,” Murray said. “But also you want to get that work in to make sure they withstand a grueling season. So I’ve always done a good job at taking care of my guys early on. But also I gotta make sure that they’re ready to, come October-November, they’re ready to play championship football.

“But you have to definitely coach and make sure that when certain plays and certain things throughout the week that hey, those guys aren’t getting too many reps. Are not getting too worn down because you obviously want them to be fresh on Saturday’s… But all you can do is hope and pray and make sure that they’re working their tails off, which they did.”

This year, things will be back to normal, and Gray knows that will help the entire group heading into the season.

“It’s definitely different and I know it’s different for Coach DeMarco as well,” Gray said. “Being able to go into fall camp with depth, being able to allow guys to rest, allow to see what everyone can do, what role everyone is going to play.

“Fall camp is to see who’s gonna play, so it definitely allows Coach DeMarco to see everyone and have that depth where people are not getting banged up early. So it’s definitely helpful.”

Behind Gray, the battle for carries will rage on into the season.

But the competitive spirit amongst the group is high, and Murray is looking forward to getting back onto the field with his running backs.

“This is a great group of young men just because obviously depth is important, but just how they treat each other,” he said. “The respect that they have for each other. But also the competitiveness throughout the course of the group individually and collectively.

“This is a great room for me. I’m excited… We’re excited about where we are as a running back group.”

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