Sooner 2024 running backs feature experience, depth and an elite 4-star recruit

Editor's note: This is an installment in a continuing series of articles previewing the Oklahoma position groups ahead of the upcoming college football season. Today we take an inside look at the Sooner running backs.
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Oklahoma football has a long history of producing outstanding running backs with speed, ability to break tackles and cause havoc once they reach the second and third levels of the defense.

Although the offensive philosophy and style of play in college football has evolved at Oklahoma and in general throughout the college game, running the football effectively and efficiently remains a fundamental part of every offense. Some teams employ the run game more than others, but the basic truth is without the ability to run the football, teams become one dimensional and too predictable for the sophisticated defenses that are being employed in college football today.

Over the years, Oklahoma football has been best known for its prolific rushing offenses. The Oklahoma Wishbone era under head coach Barry Switzer revolutionized the art of running the football. The Sooners may not have invented the famed wishbone offense but they should be credited with perfecting it. The Sooners went 33-1-1 in the first three seasons with Switzer as head coach and regularly put up video game-like rushing numbers running the football out of the wishbone formation. In one game in 1988, Oklahoma rushed for a program record 768 yards.

The Sooners -- and most college teams for that matter -- don't run the ball as predominantly as they once did. The presence of bigger, stronger quarterbacks with mobility and rifle arms with uncanny accuracy and taller, faster receivers with hands like glue that spread the field and stretch defenses have changed the game, and not just at the college level, at the next level, as well.

Balanced offense is the new name of the game. Oklahoma still likes to run the ball, and the Sooners still do a generally good job doing so, even if it is complementary to a passing offense. The two obviously complement each other, but it sometimes is hard to determine whether the Sooners use the run game to set up their passing offense or vice versa.

2023 summary

In 2023, Oklahoma averaged 182.2 rushing yards per game. That ranked seventh in the Big 12, with the heaviest load falling on redshirt freshman Gavin Sawchuk, who led the Sooners with 744 rushing yards, an average of 6.7 yards per carry and scored nine rushing touchdowns. Sawchuk also caught 14 passes for 94 yards, which is a necessity if you're going to play running back at OU.

Running the football accounted for 36 percent of the Oklahoma offense in 2023. Junior Tawee Walker was OU's second leading rusher last season, gaining 513 yards on the ground and averaging 5.0 yards per carry. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel rushed for 373 net yards and a team-high 12 rushing touchdowns, mostly from short yardage.

Prior to the 2023 season, it was believed that sophomore Jovantae Barnes would man the starting role at running back. He underwent surgery on his right football after the 2022 season and wasn't completely healthy entering the 2023 season and, as a result, wasn't as productive as in 2022, when he rushed for 519 yards and five touchdowns.

2024 running back outlook

Oklahoma losses nearly 50 percent of its rushing production in 2024. QB Dillon Gabriel transferred to Oregon to make room for former five-star QB recruit Jackson Arnold. Tawee Walker transferred to Wisconsin, and Marcus Major, who rushed for 833 yards in four complete seasons at OU is now at Minnesota.

The Sooners are also without former four-star running back Daylan Smothers, who was ranked by ESPN as the No. 12 running back in the 2023 class nationally and No. 13 by Rivals. Smothers saw action in just four games last season. gaining 42 yards on 11 total carries. The former highly touted prospect transferred to North Carolina State after the 2023 season.

Gavin Sawchuk, one of just two Oklahoma running backs with substantive experience at the Power 4 level, will begin the season at the lead running back position with Jovantae Barnes at No. 2 on the depth chart. Former four-star prospect Kalib Hicks, who saw action in just two games last season (the season opener with Arkansas State and the Sooners' Alamo Bowl game against Arizona, will be competing for playing time. Hicks is expected to battle University of Tennessee-Martin transfer Sam Franklin for the spot on the depth chart behind Sawchuk and Barnes.

Both Hicks and Franklin were impressive in the annual Oklahoma Red-White spring game in April. Hicks recorded 62 yards on 10 carries plus a 30-yard touchdown run, and Franklin posted 58 yards on 12 rushing attempts. The pair were the top two rushing leaders in the game. Franklin was a second-team FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) selection by the Associated Press in 2023.

Another running back to keep an eye on next season is freshman Taylor Tatum, considered as the No. 1 running back in the 2024 class nationally by both 247Sports and Rivals. Tatum may be a year away from considerable playing time, but he is a highly touted prospect that the Sooner coaches have high expectations for, even as early as the coming season. His senior season at Longview (Texas) High School, Tatum rushed for 1,463 yards, caught six passes for 138 receiving yards and totaled 23 touchdowns. He is the all-time leader at Longview with 53 career touchdowns.

A couple of factors that could have an impact on OU's ability to run the ball effectively in 2024 is the change at offensive coordinator with former North Texas head coach and former Sooner running back Seth Littrell sharing those responsibilities with another OU football alumni Joe Jon Finley. Also of some concern is a rebuilt offensive line that will feature five new starters.

The outlook is good, however, for Oklahoma to have another solid season running the football, and against some of college football's best defenses in the SEC.