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Oklahoma Spring Review: RBs Had Some Setbacks, Some Growth

The Sooners could have used some luck this spring as several running backs missed time with injury, which hinders DeMarco Murray's search for Eric Gray's replacement.

With spring practice in the past and the NCAA Transfer Portal spring window now closed, it’s the ideal time to assess the Oklahoma roster heading into summer.

AllSooners has compiled a 10-part series, position by position, reviewing the Sooners’ spring and where that position goes from here.

Running back

DeMarco Murray needed to find his replacement for NFL-bound Eric Gray, but that didn’t happen — at least not in spring practice or in the portal.

Gray’s versatility and reliability last year were bright spots in the Oklahoma offense.

The candidates to fill Gray’s shoes are well-known, and are nicely established. But it wasn’t necessarily an ideal spring for Murray at the position.

2023 post spring depth chart - RB

Jovantae Barnes (6-foot, 206 pounds) had a couple 100-yard games last season, including the bowl game, and looks capable of being RB1. He finished last season with 116 carries for 519 yards and scored five touchdowns and always appeared ready for a larger role. 

But he missed more than half of spring practice with a foot injury. That’s not what Barnes needed coming off a good freshman season. He’ll bounce back fine, but he could have used some sharpening. Instead, he had to watch two weeks of practice wearing a protective boot on his foot.

“I’m looking for a starter. That’s why we’re able to have the depth that we have here,” Murray said. “Just speaking on those two guys, they’ve always had a terrific mindset. They’ve always had a great working habit. We’re fortunate to have them here. But we have to continue to learn and continue to grow and get stronger and get faster in all areas. I’m pleased with where they are now.”

FB - Gavin Sawchuk, Florida State Seminoles, Cheez-It Bowl

Gavin Sawchuk

Gavin Sawchuk (5-11, 194) looks the part athletically and in his one big chance last season — also the bowl game — he produced big numbers, with 100 yards rushing against Florida State. 

Sawchuk’s speed and burst are obvious, and he has the talent to be a feature back. It was a good spring for Sawchuk, who got plenty of quality work in Barnes’ absence, including an impressive spring game. Sawchuk finished with just 16 yards on seven carries, but had a couple of enticing runs.

“Gavin in particular, he obviously put on some weight and has a totally different body,” Murray said. “He looks fantastic.”

With Barnes out, the Sooners’ freshman tandem of Daylan Smothers (5-11, 187) and Kalib Hicks (5-11, 199) also got plenty of valuable reps. With both guys graduating early and enrolling for the spring semester, their time with Jerry Schmidt and his staff produced a thick but lean look that will serve them well in the future. Their results in the spring game were unexpected: Hicks, who had a fantastic senior year at Denton Ryan, finished with minus-4 yards on nine attempts, while Smothers, who didn’t play football last season due to a transfer snag, busted out with 29 yards on just four rushes (7.3 yards per carry).

Murray said Smothers and Hicks each had a good spring. While Smothers was able to showcase that in the Red/White Game, Hicks had lots of wow moments in practice.

“Just how fast and how explosive he is,” Murray said. “He obviously has a thick, lower body. Great kid. He’s young. We just have to get him fundamentally technical.”

Smothers’ progression, on the other hand, has been nothing short of phenomenal having not played since 2021.

“The fact he is a mid-year, he’s gonna get a huge jump-start on that,” Murray said. “So it won’t take him too much time, but he’s been really good since he’s been here.”

Norman freshman walk-on Chapman McKown (5-5, 163) was also injured this spring, so fellow walk-on and former junior college transfer Tawee Walker (5-9, 213) was the star of the Red/White for the second straight year, rushing for a team-leading 37 yards on eight attempts (he ran 13 times for 52 yards in last year's Red/White Game). Walker, who also missed a little time this spring, finished last season with 62 yards on 18 carries and saw action in 11 games. Walker’s power and balance are under appreciated outside the program and could be utilized in more situations in 2023.

Tawee Walker

Tawee Walker

“Tawee is doing a great job for us,” Murray said. “He’s been extremely (good) in the run game for us.”

Another walk-on transfer, Emeka Megwa (6-0, 205), is another powerful runner who is eligible now after transferring last year from Washington. Megwa also spent most of spring on the injured list, however, and wasn’t able to gain the kind of additional reps that could have pushed him up the depth chart.

Senior Marcus Major (6-0, 227) probably didn’t need to do much in spring ball to impress the coaches. Now a fifth-year senior, Major has 116 career rushing attempts for 525 yards (4.5 per carry) to go with 11 catches for 102 yards and eight total touchdowns. Major always stands out physically, but in 28 career games at OU, the Oklahoma City product has made just one start.

Fans always want to see more of him, but for one reason or another — another injury in this year’s spring game, for example — he’s been unable to show out. If Major is healthy, eligible and dialed in, he has the ability to join Barnes and Sawchuk in the rotation and give Murray a true triple-threat.

Brent Venables said Major was limited almost all spring, but then given the green light and injured his hand.

“He’ll be fine,” Venables said, “but man, he looked terrific. Really good, explosive. He runs with great pace, strong and fast, and he has a chance to have a really big year.”

At least the numbers, depth and sheer talent is good enough that Murray wasn't compelled to bring in someone out of the NCAA Transfer Portal. As he said, he wants a starter and has a lot of depth from which to choose.

Gray had one of the top single-season rushing totals in OU history, so replacing the numbers won’t be easy. But the really hard part is finding someone with Gray’s consistency and dependability. Those qualities take time — and often are built away from the practice field

“I’m always looking forward to summer workouts,” Murray said, “and getting those guys bigger, faster, stronger and then letting those guys take control in the leadership of meetings and stuff of that nature, walkthroughs we have. It’s exciting times.”