What’s riding on the Sooners’ search for an every-down back

What’s riding on the Sooners’ search for an every-down back

DeMarco Murray said OU’s collection of running backs is deeper and more talented than the unit that led the Big 12 in rushing last season. But the Sooners lack a back with a track record of production over a full season.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Sep 1, 2023, 10:30am CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Sep 1, 2023, 10:30am CDT

DeMarco Murray would go on to etch his name in Oklahoma’s record books and play on three Big 12 titles in the back half of the 2000s. But before he ever stepped foot in the Sooners’ backfield, Murray’s football journey in Norman began with a case of turf toe and a redshirt.

The pain from the foot injury during OU’s first practice in August 2006 was enough to keep Murray, entering his fourth season coaching the Sooners’ running backs, from taking a single handoff his first season. 

Adrian Peterson charted a third consecutive 1,000-yard campaign that fall and the Sooners went 11-3 in Bob Stoops’ eighth season. Murray spent it rehabbing and logging hours on his Xbox 360, pouring his competitive juices into NCAA Football ‘07 in lieu of the real thing. He was on the sideline on New Year’s Day when Boise State shocked OU in the Fiesta Bowl.

The experience gave Murray an education in the turmoil inherent to long-term injury.  It also gave him an opportunity to sit back and absorb everything going on around him. And in Peterson and junior Allen Patrick, Murray discovered veteran rushers to emulate.

He digested the way they attacked practice and film study. He saw how seriously they approached recovery treatment and took care of their bodies each week. It wasn’t long before Murray — ESPN’s top running back in the 2006 class — realized the mental side of the game was as critical as the physical in withstanding the toll of playing the position across a full college football season. 

Murray hadn’t taken a live snap in Norman before he understood what it took to be an elite college running back. His 3,685 rushing yards and 50 touchdowns 40 games over four seasons are proof those lessons stuck. 

“I remember watching that year unfold and how long it was,” Murray recalled.

“You just can’t get tired. Can’t get tired of doing the little things over and over and over. I try to tell our guys that often — it’s about consistency. Whether it’s the film room or the training room, you can’t get tired of doing the little things.”

The same data Murray downloaded in the fall of 2006 is on his mind as he embarks on 2023 needing to identify an every-down back to lead the Sooners’ run game this fall. 

Murray believes the stable of running backs OU returns is deeper and more talented than a year ago. But with last year’s 1,366-yard rusher Eric Gray now competing for touches with the New York Giants, an OU offense that relies heavily on its ground game now finds itself searching again for a running back with a track record of proven production over the course of a full college season. 

The primary contenders to replace Gray’s production are veteran rusher Marcus Major and promising sophomores Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk. Freshmen Daylan Smothers and Kalib Hicks and second-year walkon Tawee Walker make up the depth behind them.

On paper, it’s enough talent to staff a capable by-committee running back unit. Murray is better informed on the subject than most. 

He knows OU needs something more out of the backfield to even flirt with its “banner-hanging” aspirations

“You want to have a bell cow,” Murray said. “You want to have a guy that you can count on day in, day out just like I did with Eric … We need a guy that’s going to line up out there every single day and set the tone for us as a group and then have other guys feed off of him.”

Who will fill that role in Year 2 under offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby is one question. Why it’s so important that someone emerges from the pack matters perhaps even more. 

Few offenses ran the ball more in 2022 than Lebby’s Sooners.

Of 988 offensive snaps OU recorded last fall, 58.9% came on the ground. The Sooners’ 44.7 rushing attempts per game were eighth-most in the county. OU runs outpaced passing attempts by 13.5 plays each Saturday. 

And the Sooners’ run game worked last fall. 

Gray accounted for more than a third of those rushing attempts and Barnes and Major tacked on 172 combined carries behind him to form a ground attack that led the Big 12 in yards per game (219.8). That same rushing average ranked 10th nationally. Pro Football Focus metrics graded the Sooners’ as the 13th-strongest run game among Power 5 offenses in 2022.

OU rushers elevated an offense that landed 42nd nationally in passing yardage to 32.8 points per game (24th-most in the Power 5). Without Gray, the Sooners now look for a lead back who can generate similar production and hold up for 13-14 games.

“Eric was great and I’m excited for what he’s doing at the next level,” said Sawchuk. “But now that he’s gone, there’s an opportunity for somebody to step up.” 

Sawchuk and Barnes, the pair of former four-star prospects, represent intriguing options.

With 116 carries for 519 yards and five scores, Barnes finished as OU’s second leading rusher before undergoing offseason surgery to repair a right foot injury. The sample size on Sawchuk is smaller but plenty rich; he made the most of his lone opportunity in 2022 when he ran 15 times for 100 yards and a rushing touchdown in the Cheez-It Bowl defeat to Florida State.

Managing his ailing foot to play in all but two games last fall taught Barnes pain tolerance. Reinvigorated by his health and the comfort found in Year 2 in the system, he’s approaching the weighty task of chasing the starting role bit by bit.

“Right now I’m just taking it step by step, you feel me?” Barnes said “Going step by step. Practice by practice. I’m just excited to be back and just be out here with my boys.” 

Sawchuk, meanwhile, gained nearly 15 pounds in his first full offseason on campus. He feels better equipped for the rigors of operating out of the backfield for a full college football season. 

You can take a lot of beating,” Sawchuk said. “So it’s staying on the recovery. Staying on the treatment, Staying ahead of the injuries to not get to that point where you feel injured.”

When Major is on the field, Murray believes he is among OU’s most athletic players. Yet Injury and eligibility concerns have placed a cap on Major’s impact in Norman. Only once in his four seasons has Major appeared in at least 10 games.

“He’s a special kid. A great kid. Works his tail off,” Murray said. “We need to just keep him healthy. If he’s healthy, we’ll be happy at the end of the season.”

In 2023, Major stares down his best — and maybe last — opportunity to come true on the promise he carried out of Oklahoma City’s Millwood High School

“It’s all on me really in the staying room,” Major said. “We’ve got a new recovery facility and I’ve been using that a lot. Just really been trying to take care of my body a lot.”

Promise lies within the Sooners’ talented lead trio and the freshmen behind them in Smothers and Hicks. But finding Murray’s top back might not be so straightforward.

Major brings no guarantees. And for the potential Barnes and Sawchuk carry, getting consistent production from young running backs can take time. Even Murray needed some. The program’s career leader in touchdowns and all-purpose yards didn’t lead the Sooners in rushing until his final season at OU in 2010.

Sawchuk seems to already understand some of the truth Murray himself learned in the fall of 2006.

“Everybody wants to play a whole season,” he said. “Everybody wants that. To start. To be that guy out there.” 

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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