Brent Venables likes his ‘physically and mentally’ tough running back room


One of the questions that the Sooners have had to deal with over the last couple of years is the production of the running back position in the wake of Eric Gray’s journey to the NFL. As they enter spring ball, they’re answering that question yet again.

Though Gray’s departure took a lot of production with him, Brent Venables likes what he has in the running back room for 2023 with Jovantae Barnes, Gavin Sawchuk, and Marcus Major.

Speaking with the media yesterday, Venables said, “So these are good, tough mentally and physically, players that we’re talking about at the running back position.”

They’re taking on the identity of running backs coach DeMarco Murray, who was a tough, do-it-all runner during his time in Norman and in the NFL. He took on heavy workloads during his playing days and was incredibly productive along the way.

“But it’s a really good strong group of guys that are really looking forward to having their opportunity to be the guy,” Venables said. “But I think for us to be at our best, we’re gonna have to have good competitive depth.”

Though offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby and Oklahoma have this perceived reputation of being a pass-happy team, they’re really a running football team. In 2022, they averaged 13 more rushing attempts per game than they did passing attempts. Considering how much they want to run it, they’ll need several guys to be up to the task of taking 10-15 carries a game.

As a true freshman, Jovantae Barnes proved up to the task of being the backup running back. Although injuries opened the door for Barnes to get significant work as the backup to Eric Gray, his performance allowed him to hold onto the job. And with that performance, Barnes provided a glimpse of what’s to come for the Sooners in 2023.

Last season, Barnes ran for 519 yards and five touchdowns at 4.5 yards per carry. He ran with burst and with purpose, providing a physical element to the Sooners rushing attack.

As spring ball opened on Monday, Barnes is viewed as the frontrunner to lead the running back room in 2023. But the running back room gets a boost as Gavin Sawchuk takes on more responsibilities.

Waiting in the wings for much of 2022, Sawchuk got his opportunity to contribute significantly in the Cheez-It Bowl. In the three-point loss, Sawchuk carried the ball 15 times for 100 yards and a touchdown. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry, showing off his elusiveness and speed in the open field.

Another offseason to work in the strength and conditioning program and to get further acclimated to the offense has Gavin Sawchuk on breakout watch. Because of his breakaway ability, Sawchuk adds a big-play threat to the offense that can help replace the explosive plays lost by the departures of Gray and wide receiver Marvin Mims.

And then there’s Marcus Major. Major, a red-shirt senior, has yet to fully realize his potential. Injuries and academics have limited him the last couple of seasons, but we’ve seen what he can do when the opportunity presents itself. If he can stay healthy, he provides another player who can run with power and can create big plays.

Brent Venables is right to feel good about his lead group of running backs. There’s a lot of talent for Jeff Lebby and DeMarco Murray to deploy. If Oklahoma hopes to return to Big 12 title contention in 2023, they need their running back group to have a great year. With as much emphasis as the offense places on running the football, this group has a chance to put up some big-time numbers.

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Story originally appeared on Sooners Wire



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