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Oklahoma Position Preview: Running Back

Eric Gray seems to be the easy choice as RB1, but the Sooners have a ton of unexplored, untested talent behind him.

In his last three seasons as an offensive coordinator, Jeff Lebby’s methodology has been to divide the football.

That could be the play again in 2022 as Lebby takes over the Oklahoma offense.

Eric Gray appears to be a player tailor-made for Lebby’s up-tempo offense — line up in the backfield on first down and run with the ball, catch a check-down pass on second down, then split out wide to go out for a throw on third down. Keeping the same personnel on the field allows for Lebby to push the tempo and wear down defenses.

But with OU’s particular stable of running backs in 2022 — and with Lebby’s recent history as an offensive coordinator — expect Gray to get a lot of breaks.

Does that mean fourth-year junior Marcus Major finally gets an extended body of work? Or do dynamic freshmen Jovantae Barnes or Gavin Sawchuk get ample action? Or do walk-on transfers Tawee Walker (Palomar Junior College) or Bentavious Thompson (UCF) step in and step up?

Whatever rotation DeMarco Murray settles upon this season, don’t expect Gray or anyone else to run away with the carries.

In 2019 at UCF and in 2020 and 2021 at Ole Miss, Lebby didn’t have anything resembling a 1,000-yard running back. Instead, Lebby utilized a committee approach to the position.

  • In 2019, four UCF running backs — including Thompson, who had 604 yards and a team-high 8 TDs — had at least 87 carries. They combined for 2,488 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground.
  • In 2020, in a shortened season, three Ole Miss running backs had at least 56 carries and combined for 1,429 yards and 19 touchdowns.
  • In 2021, three Rebel running backs had at least 105 carries and combined for 1,968 yards and 21 touchdowns.

All three times, the team’s leading rusher had between 726 and 785 yards.

And all three times, the quarterback figured heavily into the team’s rushing statistics.

Last year, Matt Corral led the Rebels with 152 rushing attempts (he was third on the team with 614 yards).

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In 2020, Corral was second 112 carries and second with 506 yards.

And in 2019, Dillon Gabriel — yeah, that Dillon Gabriel — was fifth on the UCF roster with 71 carries and seventh with 78 net yards.

It’s certainly conceivable that Gabriel carries the football 5.5 times a game at OU in 2022, but not likely. Not with the roster numbers he has around him.

Gray has 336 career rushing attempts, or 9.6 per game. He should get a bigger load this year. He ran for 772 yards as a sophomore at Tennessee but slipped behind Kennedy Brooks last season at OU and only managed 412 rushing yards on 78 carries. The 5-foot-9, 206-pound Gray has experience, versatility as a receiver and an extremely high football IQ that make him the Sooners’ RB1.

 2022 Oklahoma Position Previews

  • Tuesday: Running back
  • Wednesday: Linebacker
  • Thursday: Offensive line
  • Friday: Defensive line
  • Saturday: Wide receiver
  • Sunday: Cornerback
  • Monday: Tight end
  • Tuesday: Safety/Nickel
  • Wednesday: Quarterback

Th 5-11, 222-pound Major runs like a muscle car when he gets on the field, but for a variety of reasons (injury, eligibility, et al), he’s had a restrictor plate attached: only 10 carries as a freshman, just 35 as a sophomore and only 15 as a junior. A breakout performance in the Cotton Bowl against Florida 9 carries, 110 yards) and another nice showing in the Alamo Bowl against Oregon (10 carries, 54 yards) made it clear what he’s capable of.

Barnes has already added more than 10 pounds of muscle since his senior year at Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas, and his early enrollment and performance in spring practice pushed him immediately into the conversation. In the spring game, he showed toughness, power and acceleration but clearly is adjusting to the speed of the college game.

RB Preview

Speed is Sawchuk’s best asset coming out of Valor Christian High School in Littleton, CO. He’s strong and powerful enough at 5-11 and 190 pounds — and he’ll get bigger quickly at OU — but the Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year and Max Preps Player of the Year surpassed 2,004 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior because of his electrifying breakaway speed. In track, Sawchuk posted several 100s well below 11 seconds. If he translates that into getting to the second level of defenses in college, he’ll have a great career.

Walker had a breakout performance in the spring game after transferring to OU as a juco arrival in February. Last year, the 5-9, 190-pound Walker rushed for 875 yards and eight touchdowns in 11 games.

Thompson is another intriguing entry. The 6-1, 197-pound Thompson first committed to Miami when he was in high school back in 2015. He redshirted, then played three years at UCF, with 1,136 career rushing yards for the Knights, before sitting out the 2021 season after being dismissed from the team. Now 25 years old, he’ll be eager to re-prove himself to Lebby and play once again alongside Gabriel.

Walk-ons Jaden Knowles and Todd Hudson are expected to return in 2022 as well.