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2023 Positional Preview – Running Backs

In the second installment of the 2023 Positional Preview, we cover Demarco Murray's room, potentially led by a three-headed monster at running back.
Jovantae Barnes isn’t giving up “Lead Dawg” easily. Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

The Room

Projected Depth Chart

  1. Jovantae Barnes – SO
    • 2022 – 11 games, 116 carries, 519 yards (4.5 YPC), 5 TD; 5 rec., 26 yards, 0 TD
  2. Gavin Sawchuk – RS FR
    • 2022 – 2 games, 17 carries, 105 yards (6.2 YPC), 1 TD; 1 rec., 8 yards, 0 TD
  3. Marcus Major – RS SR (OR)
    • 2022 – 9 games, 56 carries, 227 yards (4.1 YPC), 4 TD; 8 rec., 61 yards, 1 TD
    • Career – 20 games, 116 carries, 525 yards (4.5 YPC), 7 TD; 11 rec., 102 yards, 1 TD
  4. Kalib Hicks – FR (OR)
    • 2022 (HS Career) – 455 carries, 3,228 yards, (7.1 YPC), 33 TD; 28 rec., 292 yards, 3 TD
  5. Tawee Walker – JR
    • 2022 – 11 games, 18 carries, 62 yards (3.4 YPC), 0 TD; 1 rec., 7 yards, 0 TD
  6. Daylan Smothers – FR (RS likely)
    • 2022 (HS Career, no SR season) – 2,787 yards, 40 touchdowns

2022 Recap

2022 will go down as the year Eric Gray burst onto the scene and into the OU record books with 1,366 yards rushing, good enough for the 9th best rushing season in OU history. Entering into the season, Gray was essentially the default RB1 after Kennedy Brooks had graduated. Recruiting lapses by the previous regime had significantly impacted the RB room before Demarco Murray returned to Norman, and by 2022, Gray and Marcus Major were the only RBs on the roster with any real game experience.

In his first season in Norman after a two year stint at Tennessee, Gray rushed for 412 yards on 78 carries (5.3 ypc) backing up Brooks. Gray flashed often when he got his chances, showcasing a great ability to move laterally and make defenders miss. He was also effective catching the ball, catching 23 balls for 228 yards and 2 touchdowns, good for 10.0 yards per catch out of the backfield. With his quickness and agility, he was a great compliment to the deliberate, slashing style of Brooks.

When the 2022 depth chart came out, there were some concerns about Eric Gray as the top back in a new offensive system that thrives on spacing and a downfield running attack. Gray, although listed at 5’10”, 210 pounds, appeared on the smaller end, and his overall explosiveness was something that could be questioned. While his agility and short area burst was off the charts, his top end speed seemed lacking.

Gray put a lot of doubts to rest quickly, bursting into the season with three 100 yard efforts in the first four games, averaging 7.55 ypc and adding 11 catches, including 7 in the loss to Kansas State. After struggling – along with the rest of the team – over a two game stretch in the DFW area, Gray was back in a big way, running over 100 yards five times in the last six, including one 200 yard effort, amassing a strong 1,366 yards on 213 carries (6.4 ypc).

Backing up Gray was an even bigger mystery, as the first official depth chart released before the first game had Gray, followed by Marcus Major, JUCO transfer Tawee Walker, and heralded true freshman Jovantae Barnes. Gavin Sawchuk, Barnes’ 2022 classmate, was a summer arrival, and a redshirt was all but official before the season started. Walker was a somewhat under-the-radar add, as Murray and OU convinced the former teammate of now-Patriot Rhamondre Stevenson to head to Norman as a preferred walk-on. And with the state of the room, as mentioned earlier, Walker was a great grab for Demarco to help add some depth to the roster and spread out some of the carries. Walker was about as advertised, chipping in 18 carries, mostly late in blowouts. 18 carries that Gray or Barnes did not have to take.

“Or Barnes” obviously means that initial depth chart changed quickly. The 6’0″, 205 pound true freshman from the Las Vegas area received four carries the first game against UTEP, but was already up to 13 carries by week 3 at Nebraska, jumping up the depth chart to RB2. Barnes then burst onto the conference scene in Fort Worth, rushing for his first career 100 yard game and first career rushing touchdown, while later adding a second on the day. While Barnes struggled to gain a lot of carries during Gray’s huge November run (464 yards last three games), he made the most of his situation in the Cheez-it Bowl. With Gray sitting out to prepare for the NFL Draft, Barnes rushed 27 times for 108 yards and a touchdown, showing his physical running style against a strong Florida State squad.

In that same bowl game, fellow true freshman Gavin Sawchuk finally made an appearance, bursting onto the scene with 17 carries for 105 yards, averaging 6.2 yards per carry with a style reminding Sooner fans of the days of Rodney Anderson. While Sawchuk didn’t see any action over the season, having a third running back hit 100 yards in a game during the season helped showcase a completely revamped room under the direction of Demarco Murray.

Gray (5’10”) and Barnes (6’0″) ended up being a great compliment to one other, with Gray’s quickness and Barnes’ physicality able to present different stressors on opponents. The duo helped lead OU to 2,852 yards on the ground on 581 total carries, good for 4.9 yards per carry and 219.4 yards per game, ranking 10th in the country.

Tawee Walker has had a solid camp. Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

2023 Projection

With all the good things that can be said about how the ground game performed in 2022, one can’t help but expect a more efficient run game in 2023. And with the strength of the depth chart, the improvement at wide receiver, and an expected increase in rushes by quarterbacks, last year’s 219 yards per game could be considered the floor.

Lebby’s offense loves to run the ball. Ole Miss rushed for 211.0 and 208.2 ypg in 2020 and 2021, respectively, and UCF hit 215.4 in 2019, which would put last year’s output a little bit higher than the average. But Lebby has never had a running back room of Jovantae Barnes, Gavin Sawchuk, Marcus Major, and newcomer and camp phenom Kalib Hicks. Nor has he had the overall team speed at receiver – guys like Andrel Anthony, Jr., Nic Anderson, Gavin Freeman, and Jaquiaze Pettaway – to help his downfield air attack, opening up the run lanes. And last but not least, if our camp notes are any indication, Lebby hasn’t had an offensive line quite like the unit he can run behind in 2023.

Lebby also has a starting quarterback who is just athletic enough to keep defenses honest in Dillon Gabriel. The small-statured lefty accounted for 89 rushing attempts a season ago, but as explained in our QB Positional Preview, with a competent backup in Jackson Arnold, we expect not only the QB run game to increase in focus and overall rush attempts, but also the effectiveness of Oklahoma’s RPO action.

A three-headed monster in the form of Jovantae Barnes, Gavin Sawchuk, and newcomer Kalib Hicks is expected to lead the rushing attack, along with the projected 125 or so carries from the quarterbacks. We saw over 20 rushes from receivers last season as well, mostly in the form of jet sweeps to Jalil Farooq, Drake Stoops, and Gavin Freeman. Those plays are great supplements to Lebby’s downhill scheme, and the more effective someone dynamic like Freeman can be this season will only help.

While Barnes proved himself on the field last season, Sawchuk only saw action in the bowl game, and Hicks has only taken part in offseason workouts. However, both are expected to join Barnes at the top of the list for carries (more on this later). Sawchuk was a prized recruit in 2022, a track star with some raw football talent. After his expected redshirt, Sawchuk looked fantastic in Orlando, outside of his lone fumble that proved costly. Those are the kind of mistakes you may have to deal with in such a young room, but the team talent is there to overcome some setbacks.

And the reason why there are three? We can’t stop hearing enough about Kalib Hicks. Pretty much every Sooner talking head is talking about the freshman from Denton Ryan. And if you’ve been reading our insider notes, you know our sources have corroborated that message multiple times, even back to a spring camp note from April 1st where Hicks was described as having “great feet, low center of gravity, and a burst.” A three star recruit in the 2023 class, Hicks arrived in Norman without much fanfare. But he set the stage early, practicing with the team during bowl prep in the winter of 2022 and displaying a balanced approach, with a good blend of size, speed, and shake. Listed at 5’11”, 195 pounds, Hicks looks like a prototypical pro-style running back with a college-ready body. If his speed is closer to what’s being reported than what showed on his high school highlight reels (which were very good), there is little doubt that the true freshman can push for 75 or more carries, even with Barnes and Sawchuk sharing duties ahead of him.

If OU can put all of these theories on paper into action, the run game is poised to have a stellar season. Between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Oklahoma averaged 241.3 yards per game, a number this unit could be looking towards. A season like that would be a career rushing season for offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, and might just be what this team needs to get back to Arlington.

Daylan Smothers is back after a brief stint away from the team. Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

New Names & the Rest of the Room

Kalib Hicks may be a true freshman, but the buzz out of camp has warranted a deeper dive on Hicks in the previous section, as we expect Hicks to get a lot more touches than Marcus Major saw last year as RB3.

So we’ll talk a little more about Hicks’ running mate in the 2023 class, Daylan Smothers, instead. Last week, there was a personal matter that Hicks stepped away from the team to address, but he is already back with the team and participating in fall camp. The Charlotte, NC native spent all of his senior season on the sidelines in 2022, held out of competition due to transfer restrictions. So some questions remain due to a lost senior season, which undoubtably hurt his recruiting rankings, but the 5’11, 185 pound long-striding Smothers possesses football speed in spades.

His longer stride and gait sort of remind us of his position coach, Demarco Murray. While he may not have the elite athleticism of Murray, Smothers still has some home-run potential in his game. However, he does need to continue to add strength and mass to his frame, and there is maybe a question as to his adaption to the physicality of college after sitting out his entire senior season, all of which lead to a possible (and maybe probable) redshirt season. But with Barnes, Sawchuk, and Hicks, with veterans Marcus Major and Tawee Walker to spell them, Smothers getting touches would be more of a luxury than a necessity.

Speaking of Major and Walker, the “seniors” of the group enter their 5th and 3rd seasons, respectively, 2023 being Walker’s second at OU after a one-year stint in JUCO.

Major is the true senior of the room, and after committing to OU to much fanfare in 2018, the former in-state star recruit has had difficulties staying healthy throughout his four seasons in Norman. Having appeared in at least 10 games only once over those four years, Major has managed to play in only 28 career games with just one start. While his 2022 season was his best in carries, yards, touchdowns, and receptions, his 4.1 yards per carry average was far below his 5.3 from 2020 and 5.5 from 2021. Major has the elite 6’0″, 220 pound frame you would want, but his career to this point has just never reached liftoff. And by now, the talents of Barnes, Sawchuk, and Hicks may be too much to overcome for Major to see a major impact in his 5th season.

Walker, listed at 5’9″ and 215 pounds, is a physically pounding runner, using his low center of gravity to power forward. He has a surprising amount of wiggle to his game, but does not flash high end speed. Walker’s 2022 saw 18 carries for 62 yards in mostly spot and mop-up duty. He will likely garner the same role in 2023, someone who can carry 3-4 times late in a blowout win.

Projected Stats

Jovantae Barnes – 135 carries
Gavin Sawchuk – 115 carries
Kalib Hicks – 85 carries
Marcus Major – 35 carries
Tawee Walker – 15 carries

There is some history with this kind of production from running back rooms under Jeff Lebby, who appears to like spreading the touches around. While the rotation may ultimately be Demarco Murray’s call, here’s some context from previous Lebby outputs:

POS2022 (OU)2021 (OM)2020 (OM)2019 (UCF)AVG

In our first Positional Preview, we projected 108 and 25 carries for Dillion Gabriel and Jackson Arnold, respectively, which would be 29 more carries than QB carries from 2022 (133 to 104). That projected number is closer to Lebby’s norm for QB carries. In 2022, OU running backs totaled 420 total carries, which has been on the high side for his running backs.

As the picture of the 2023 offense as a whole starts to emerge, a best case scenario sees Anthony, Jr., Nic Anderson, Freeman, and Pettaway giving OU more deep speed out of a group that only relied on Marvin Mims in ‘22, allowing Gabriel (and Arnold) to average more yards per attempt in 2023 (9.3 in ’22, projected 9.8 in ’23). And with Arnold, Lebby will run DG more, also helping Y/A average go up by improving the RPO game as well.

It is our assumption that with those improvements, and an improved defense netting more stops and therefore more offensive series, that OU backs could total a similar amount of carries in 2023, even when projecting another 29 carries from the quarterbacks. But by the numbers, using 72 offensive snaps per game and 30 projected pass attempts per game, that leaves roughly 375 touches for running backs. We added 10 more to that total as a buffer, so distributing 385 carries over a similar type distribution we’re used to seeing under Lebby gets you to what we have above.

Now the main question becomes, who does Murray trust in pass blocking? Based on what we’re hearing about his abilities, if Hicks can pass block at a suitable level, he may get closer to 100 carries.

Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

Running Back Room Grades

There’s no doubt that the story of 2022 was Eric Gray. The senior heads to the New York Giants as a 5th round draft pick after a productive season on the ground. While the numbers, mostly done on the back of Gray, were productive, there was a dynamic home run threat missing from the room that just couldn’t hit a lot of explosive downfield plays. Enter Gavin Sawchuk, who took a redshirt year to change gears from track, and freshmen Kalib Hicks and Daylan Smothers, two low four-star recruits with something to prove. While Smothers is possibly looking to redshirt, the infusion of Sawchuk’s speed and Hicks’ all-around game that everyone is raving about should pair for a nice season alongside Jovantae Barnes.

2022 Grade: B+
Offseason Grade: A-
2023 Projected Grade: A-

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