The Oklahoma Sooners are coming off of one of the more disappointing seasons for the team in recent memory. The first year under head coach Will Venables, the Sooners finished 6-7 and ended the season with a 35-32 loss to the Florida State Seminoles. Spring Camp is underway in Norman, and the expectation is that Oklahoma football returns to its winning ways. The pressure will be on Venables and company, and it is sure to intensify position battles across the roster this Sooners' spring.
Position battles are already within the heat of competition for Oklahoma football. The Sooners brought in 12 transfer portal additions and added 14 freshman from their fourth-ranked recruiting class, so there are plenty of new faces vying for playing time. This will be the last time fans of the Big 12 will be keeping their eyes on the Sooners' spring moves, as Oklahoma is set to begin play in the SEC starting in the fall of 2024.
In order to solidify their worth in a move to the SEC, the Sooners would love to dominate the Big 12 one last time. A strong season becomes even more paramount given the lackluster results of 2022. Therefore, position battles on both sides of the ball are sure to be as intense as they ever have been for an Oklahoma football team.
Over 15 spring practices and the spring game on April 22nd, Venables and his staff will hope to have greater clarity on who will be trotting out on Saturdays later this year. With so many questions for a team coming off of such an underwhelming campaign, Venables will look to key in on a few position battles in order to set the tone for the Sooners. So, what are the position battles to watch?
Here are the key position battles underway during the Oklahoma football Sooners 2023 spring practices.
*Stats via Sooner Sports
All Big-12 Second Team selection RB Eric Gray left the Sooners for the 2023 NFL Draft after a stellar final season in Norman. Gray rushed for 1,366 yards, had 11 touchdowns, and led the Big 12 at 6.4 yards per carry. With Gray off to the NFL, 50% of the Sooners' rush yards from last season are gone. Redshirt senior Marcus Major, and sophomores Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk now compete to be the primary replacement for Gray.
As freshmen last season, both Barnes and Sawchuk showed flashes of production. Barnes started in the Cheez-It Bowl after Gray opted out, and rushed 27 times for 108 yards and a touchdown. He had over 500 yards and five touchdowns on the season with a rushing average of 4.5 yards per carry, a very solid output for the first-year back. However, Sawchuk's late season performance solidified his opportunity for carries as well.
Sawchuk rushed 15 times for 100 yards and a touchdown in the Cheez-It Bowl after only seeing action in one other game the entire season. He combined with Barnes to become the first pair of freshmen to each rush for 100 yards in the same game for the Sooners since 1985. His performance now has him in the thick of competition this spring.
Meanwhile, Marcus Major is returning as the most experienced running back of the three. He played in nine games last season, although missed much of the later dates. Coming in as a redshirt senior, Major will look to solidify the back-half of his college career. Joining Barnes and Sawchuk, Major creates quite a triangle for the Sooners that will be a fun position battle to watch in the backfield.
The Sooners once again played bad defense last season. Defense is never the priority in the Big 12, and Oklahoma will need to establish a better precedent on that side of the ball before making the switch to the SEC. It all starts with the big guys up front, a unit that finished as the second-worst run defense in the conference last year. Returners Jordan Kelley and Isaiah Coe will attempt to hold off transfers Jacob Lacey and Davon Sears and prove they can produce a better output this season.
Lacey started the season strong last year for Notre Dame, including a two-sack outing against California. However, he decided to opt-out after the fourth game in order to preserve a year of eligibility. He is hoping that pays off by winning his playing time for the Sooners.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Sears played in all 12 games for Texas State last fall, a defense that was 22nd in the nation in rushing defense. A Sooners defense that struggled all season long against the run, Sears could bring in the run-stopping prowess Oklahoma so covets.
Kelley and Coe are coming in as the reported starters on the defensive line, but that remains to be seen throughout spring. Transfers Lacey and Sears will compete to have something to say about that.
At first glance, the secondary doesn't seem to have much competition going into 2023. The Sooners are returning potential starters Woodi Washington, Jaden Davis, Billy Bowman and Key Lawrence. Those four could make up the defensive back and safety positions, however Venables decided not to rest with the secondary in the transfer portal.
Kendel Dolby from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M and Reggie Pearson from Texas Tech come in with considerable experience that could challenge for playing time. With the secondary being one of the stronger points from last season's defense, Dolby and Pearson will up the level of play considerably.
Venables will have his hands full deciding the position battles across the back-line of the defense, although it is a good problem to have. However he can improve the defense, Venables is sure to take his chances,