Oklahoma football: Surprises from Sooners’ Week 1 depth chart

Oklahoma coach Brent Venables speaks during a media day for the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) football team in Norman, Okla., Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023.
Oklahoma coach Brent Venables speaks during a media day for the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) football team in Norman, Okla., Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. /

The first official depth chart of the 2023 Oklahoma football season was released on Tuesday, providing a road map on the designated starters and how the positional rotations are likely to be deployed to start Brent Venables’ second season as head coach.

On the offensive side, most of the No. 1s have been fairly predictable all offseason, but it is notable that three of the position starters come straight from the transfer portal.

Tight end Austin Stogner, is actually in his second stint at OU, having been recruited by the Sooners and played his first three seasons in Norman. Right tackle Walter Rouse is an offseason pickup from Stanford, and wide receiver Andrel Anthony is ostensibly the heir apparent to former Sooner wideout Marvin Mims. Anthony comes to Oklahoma after two seasons at Michigan.

The one real surprise in the offensive unit depth chart to start the 2023 season is at running back. All offseason, the talk has been about the running back combination of Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk, who both lit up the Florida State defense in OU’s appearance in the Cheez-It Bowl last season. The two backs each ran for over 100 yards in that game.

Barnes and Sawchuk are listed third and fourth, respectively on the depth chart, however. Injuries might have something to do with it, Venables did not elaborate in his press conference on Tuesday, but regardless of the reason, the top two names at running back are fifth-year RB Marcus Major and junior-college transfer Tawee Walker, who is in his second season with Oklahoma.

Talent has never been the issue with Major. Health issues have prevented him from reaching his full potential. He’s healthy now, though, and has shown he is strong and ready to go in what OU running backs coach DeMarco Murray is hopeful will be his best season as a collegian.

Walker, a walk-on to the program last season from Palomar Junior College in California, has been impressive in preseason training camp. He carried 18 times for 62 yards last season and has earned his spot on the depth chart, which carries the caveat Marcus Major “or” Tawee Walker at the No. 1 spot.

Asked this week about the emergence of Walker in the running back room, Venables said:

“He’s been really consistent, physical, available. He’s been a guy that you can count on…Does a lot of things right. He plays really strong.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise on defensive depth chart is at the position Venables calls the “Cheetah,” which essentially is a fifth defensive back or a cross between linebacker and defensive back.

Redshirt senior Justin Harrington is listed No. 1 at the Cheetah spot, having apparently beaten out Indiana transfer Dasan McCullough, who had been projected throughout the offseason as the likely starter. McCullough was ranked by 247Sports as the No. 9 player overall among 2023 transfers.

Harrington was recruited by Lincoln Riley. He came to OU with a lot of promise. He was redshirted in 2020 and played four games in 2021. After that season, he chose to enter the transfer portal, but quickly decided against that path and asked to return to the team. Venables welcomed him back, but only as a walk-on.

Harrington was a backup at the position to DaShaun White last season and was expected to continue so in 2023. The reason for elevating Harrington over McCullough to start the season?

“Again, consistency,” Venables said. “His work ethic. He’s a vocal leader, competes at an incredibly high level. He’s been consistent with his body of work and his commitment to understanding the details…

“He’s long, athletic and explosive and consistently has made plays since we started (training camp).

There was some question throughout the offseason concerning who would pair across from Woodi Washington at the cornerback position. Jaden Davis held that spot last season, but he has transferred to Stanford. It appears that sophomore Gentry Williams has earned that starting spot opposite Washington. Williams was a consensus four-star prospect out of Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa in OU’s top-five ranked 2023 class.

Three-year starter Washington had a competitive battle of his own with highly touted freshman Jasiah Wagoner, who was also in competition for the starting spot awarded to Williams. “He has no fear in everything he does,” says defensive backs coach Jay Valai. “He’s not scared to compete against anybody on the football field, and that’s the one thing you love about him is that mindset he has.”

As with the offense, a couple of players acquired through the transfer portal have earned OU starting spots to begin the new season. Rondell Bothroyd, who transferred from Wake Forest, is listed as a starter at defensive end, and Reggie Pearson, from Texas Tech, is in a close battle with returning Sooner Key Lawrence, himself a transferee from Tennessee following the 2020 season, at free safety.