OU football season review: Grading the Sooners' running backs

Dec. 30—It was an up and down season for Oklahoma.

But one group that was consistent was the running backs.

The Sooners (6-7) finished the season as the 11th-ranked rushing offense in the country, averaging 219.3 yards per game while scoring 28 total touchdowns. They finished as the No. 1 rushing team in the Big 12 and attempted more running plays than anybody in the conference.

Even without leading rusher Eric Gray, the Sooners put up 253 rushing yards against Florida State in Thursday's Cheez-It Bowl. But it wasn't quite enough, as the Sooners fell 35-32.

However, the Sooners' running game became their identity on offense, and their success provides a stable foundation heading into next season.

As the team prepares for the offseason, here's how the OU running backs fared individually this season as graded by The Transcript:

Eric Gray: A+

Not even the most optimistic of fans likely saw this coming.

The senior running back did more than just establish himself as one of the conference's top running backs. Gray played as well as anybody in the country.

He posted career-highs in rushing attempts (213), yards (1,364), touchdowns (11), yards per carry (6.4) and receptions. He finished with the 17th-most rushing yards nationally and 13th-highest yards per carry, and he's now ninth on the list of most rushing yards in a single season by an OU player.

It's too bad for the Sooners that it didn't result in more wins or that he won't be able to build on it next season. Gray missed the Cheez-It Bowl as he prepares for the NFL Draft, with most experts projecting him to be drafted in the fourth or fifth round.

But several other running backs have discussed Gray's influence on them, and next season will provide an opportunity for several different running backs to step up in his absence.

Jovantae Barnes: B

Heading into the season, it wasn't expected that Barnes would assert himself as the No. 2 running back.

But his production on the field, and injuries elsewhere on the depth chart, thrust him into a prominent role.

The freshman running back ran the ball 116 times, the second most on the team, for 519 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 4.5 yards per carry. He saved his best performance for last, rushing for 108 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries against Florida State Thursday.

Barnes' opportunities were sporadic, as he finished with seven or fewer carries in six games. But he also showed the ability to be productive on a significant workload. His first 100-yard game came against TCU on 18 carries, when Gray excited the game with an injury before halftime.

Barnes showed potential, and now the goal will be to build on that next season.

Marcus Major: C

It was promising start to the season but it ended in a disappointing finish for the redshirt junior running back.

He finished the season with 56 carries for 227 yards and four touchdowns, and almost all of his production came earlier in the year. He started the year as the No. 2 running back, averaging 8.3 carries per game. But he struggled with injuries over the second half of the season and didn't record a carry in the Sooners' final four games.

Major could return for one more season next year. But given his career-long struggles with injuries, and the emergence of Barnes, it'll be interesting to see what Major decides.

Gavin Sawchuk: To be determined

The freshman running back didn't see much of the field during the regular season, but he stepped up when the Sooners needed it against Florida State.

After rushing just two times for five yards coming into the bowl game, Sawchuk saw opportunities as the No. 2 running back behind Barnes. He delivered, finishing with 100 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries (6.7 yards per carry).

It's a small sample size, but the potential of the former four-star recruit was on display.

"He has a tremendous future," OU coach Brent Venables said Thursday. "He is made of all the right stuff. Tremendous character. Great work ethic. Incredibly humble, intelligent, tough. It would have been easy for a guy like him to kind of check it in and not get better, but he showed up every day and got better all season long, and these guys will attest to that."

Now, the goal for Sawchuk is to build on that performance.

Jesse Crittenden is the sports editor of The Transcript and covers OU athletics. Reach him at jesse@normantranscript.com or at 405-366-3580