DeMarco Murray’s running back room has always been one of the quieter position groups since he was hired in 2020.
His players take on the personality of their coach, who was known for his lead-by-example mentality as a player and is now known for his stoic and intense personality as a coach. But this year, with loads of young talent led by sophomore Jovantae Barnes and redshirt freshman Gavin Sawchuk, his room is especially subdued.
“We have a quiet room, including myself,” Murray said Monday at spring practice. “We don’t do much talking. I’d rather it be that way than the other. When there’s something that needs to be said, they say it and I respect that. And I let them. We’ve got some great kids on and off the field.”
Murray’s room has only one senior, Marcus Major, and it includes three true freshmen – Kalib Hicks, Daylan Smothers and walk-on Chapman McKown. Having lost his leading rusher Eric Gray to the NFL Draft, Murray has a tall task replacing Gray’s production, which included 1,366 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in 2022.
Fortunately for Murray, he’s restocked the running back room on the recruiting trail, with Hicks and Smothers in the 2023 class. Both early enrollees have performed well this spring according to Murray, and have taken after Barnes and Sawchuk, who recently walked in their same shoes as freshmen.
“It’s been great because they were in the same shoes as Kalib (Hicks) and Daylan (Smothers) and Chapman (McKown) a year ago,” Murray said. “But now, seeing them a year later – Gavin in particular put on some weight, (his) body looks fantastic. And then Barnes, same thing. As well as Tawee (Walker). Tawee’s done a great job for us … all of those guys from a year ago, as well as Marcus Major, they’ve improved verbally.”
Murray said this spring and next fall camp he’s “looking for a starter” among the group – someone “you know can rely on every single day.” Many assume Barnes and Sawchuk are the frontrunners, considering how well both finished last season.
By season’s end, Barnes had become a real contributor as the No. 2 back, totaling 519 rushing yards and five touchdowns. But it does appear Barnes will miss some time this offseason, having a boot on his right foot and being on a scooter at Monday’s practice. Murray said head coach Brent Venables would update the media on his injury soon.
And Sawchuk was the breakout player of the Cheez-It Bowl, where he saw his only action of the season. He totaled 105 yards and a touchdown in the loss to Florida State, showing the potential to be a contributor in his second year.
“Second year in the system, second year in the scheme – those guys aren’t having to think as much,” Murray said of Barnes and Sawchuk. “I won’t call them veterans yet, but they worked extremely hard this offseason. Identifying the defense, understanding the scheme, understanding run blocking and, again, just being a difference-maker in the receiving game. Kudos to those guys for their mindset.”
Murray especially spoke highly of Sawchuk on Monday. The Denver, Colo. native has high expectations heading into 2023 because of his bowl performance and having put on nearly 10 pounds of muscle this offseason.
“It’s been good but Gavin prepared the whole year for that opportunity,” Murray said of Sawchuk’s bowl performance. “And he’s put on so much weight and he’s gotten stronger, he’s gotten more physical and that’s the biggest thing from a year ago – just being more physical between the tackles. He definitely improved in that last year throughout the course of the season. I’m extremely proud of the offseason he’s had and the spring he’s had so far.”
It’s clear Sawchuk is pushing for more playing time and he sounds poised to be put in that role after what he said was a rollercoaster of a first season.
“At the beginning, I was just all over the place,” Sawchuk said. “Just coming in as a freshman, you don’t know what to expect. Coach starts yelling and everything is going fast and you’re just kind of wide-eyed and ready to go. But it started to slow down eventually as you go through the year and started to understand what Coach DeMarco was expecting, what other coaches were expecting, what it’s like to be a D1 athlete playing at the college football level. Then it really started to slow down.”
With Barnes out for an unknown period of time, Sawchuk has a good opportunity in front of him. As do the other four running backs.
Quietly, Major has had a good offseason, putting on seven pounds of muscle, which is easy to see when watching practice. Physically, he looks the part. But Major’s biggest question mark – as has been his entire Sooner career – is his health. If he can stay healthy, he could be the starter come Sept. 2 versus Arkansas State. And don’t count out the freshmen Hicks and Smothers – both were considered two of the most highly-touted high school running backs in the country last year and Murray isn’t afraid to throw them into the fire early.
Whoever ends up with that starting role, whether it be the talented second-year backs, the fifth-year senior, or the new young guns, Murray will surely have them ready. And similar to his prior starters – Rhamondre Stevenson (2020), Kennedy Brooks (2021) and Gray (2022) – they’re sure to not do much talking about it.
Because that’s how Murray likes it – silent, but steady.
“We’ve got a great group of backs who are competing for playing time and competing for that top spot,” Murray said. “It’s been great to see and sit back and watch. They’ve got the right mindset. Extremely talented room but a close room. So for us, man, we’re close as hell, but at the end of the day, we also compete when we step out on the field.
“They’re stepping out of their comfort zones to be leaders, which that’s what we need.”