Jovantae Barnes eyes expanded role in OU football backfield after offseason foot surgery

The Oklahoman
NORMAN — Jovantae Barnes right’ foot started bothering him during his senior year of high school in Las Vegas.
Virtually every step he took on the football field using the foot would hurt.
“Every time I cut, it would be sore,” Barnes said. “Or try to press off my foot, it would be sore.”
But heading into his freshman season at OU, Barnes wasn’t about to deal with the injury and risk a setback that would diminish his chances of getting on the field.
“Whatever it takes, I’m going to get on the field,” Barnes recalled telling OU running backs coach DeMarco Murray after his arrival.
The decision paid off.
While Eric Gray was OU’s primary running back in 2022, Barnes was one of the bright spots as well, running for 510 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per carry, in 11 games.
In his first career start, in the Cheez-It Bowl, Barnes ran for 108 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.
The foot remained an issue throughout the season, and late in the season the decision was made to surgically repair the foot after the bowl game.
Now, after spending much of the spring in a boot following the surgery, Barnes is back feeling like himself again and working to solidify his place as OU’s top running back after Gray’s departure to the NFL.
“I feel great,” Barnes said Monday after the Sooners’ practice. “I’m just happy to be back, be back in action, just being out here with my boys. It just feels good to know I don’t have to worry about it anymore. Just had to get that over with. I just thank God that I’m back, and I don’t feel nothing.”
But Barnes said the running back he was last year is far from the one he’ll be this season, beginning when the Sooners open the season Sept. 2 against Arkansas State.
“I mean, some people say I did OK my freshman year, but I’ll say that wasn’t really me,” Barnes said. “I was kind of getting just a feel for college and kind of getting my feet wet.
“I feel like last year was kind of a rough side and just trying to get to know who I’m reading or who I’m supposed to cut off. Just different stuff like that, getting to the next level. Now I feel like I’m more comfortable with that and now I know more.
"I just feel more comfortable on the field and just feel like I’m having more fun because I know ... I know everything. I don’t have to worry about who’s coming or who’s pulling or anything like that. I know that already. I just feel more comfortable on the field.”
Barnes said he’s ready to take on an expanded role.
“I just feel like I’m more hungry and I’m more energized and I’m more ready,” Barnes said. “I feel like I’m more locked in and focused.”
Murray said he feels good about Barnes’ growth since returning from the surgery.
“It’s been a huge offseason,” Murray said. “Physically, he looks good. Can he withstand a 12- or 13-game season? Last year, he did some amazing things for us but that was last year.”
While Barnes is the top option, the Sooners have other options.
Gavin Sawchuk didn’t play much during the regular season but had a breakout bowl performance, with 15 carries for 100 yards.
Sawchuk’s speed makes him a strong candidate to play a significant role.
Redshirt senior Marcus Major ran for a career-high 227 yards on 56 carries with four touchdowns last season.
Then the Sooners added high school signees Kalib Hicks and Daylan Smothers in the 2023 class.
“We’ve got to continue to create depth in that room,” OU offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby said. “We’ve got guys that, again, are really capable. We’ve got three guys in there that have some game-day experience, but again, we want to see those guys continue to work, and end up going into Week 1 with five or six guys so that you’ve got an entire stable.”

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