Back in January, Jovantae Barnes was preparing for the Under Armour game at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida.
Barnes, then a ESPN 300 recruit, was invited to play for Team Legends. and just before the game kicked off, he committed to play for Oklahoma.
It was a big moment for Barnes, who’s originally from Orlando and still has family there. and on Dec. 29, Barnes will return to Camping World Stadium for the Cheez-It Bowl as a full-fledged Sooner nearly a year after he committed.
It could be his breakout game for the Sooners.
Earlier this month, OU running back Eric Gray opted out of the bowl game against Florida State as he prepares for the NFL Draft. That leaves Barnes, who’s operated as the Sooners’ No. 2 back all season, as the main option to step up in Gray’s absence.
He’s ready for the moment.
“It’s been very exciting,” Barnes said during his media availability Monday. “I come to practice every day looking forward to learning something new. Obviously, it’s a new step. I have a bigger role for this game. I feel like (OU running backs coach) DeMarco Murray, Eric Gray, Marcus Major and my teammates, they helped me build up my confidence to step up for this role.”
Barnes has been a bright spot for the Sooners despite a disappointing 6-6 season. The freshman running back is second on the team in rushing attempts (89) and yards (411), averaging 4.6 yards per carry while adding four touchdowns. He’s also caught five passes for 26 yards.
But outside of the Sooners’ loss to TCU, when Barnes carried the ball a season-high 18 times for 100 yards after Gray suffered an in-game injury, Gray has gotten the bulk of the carries. He averaged nearly 18 rushing attempts per game, and he recorded 20 or more touches in each of the final six regular season games. Barnes has averaged just under eight rushing attempts per game.
But with Gray gone, the opportunity is certainly there for Barnes to show what he can do in a bigger role.
“All season, I’ve been building my confidence to get this (bigger) role. I’ve been looking forward to it all season,” Barnes said. “I feel like I’m ready, and the running back group is ready and doing great.”
His teammates are confident in him, too. OU quarterback Dillon Gabriel has seen growth from Barnes in recent weeks.
“Obviously [he’s] just getting a lot more reps, but also [he’s] just growing as a human being,” Gabriel said. “He’s still learning, and he’s still growing into who he is on the field, off the field and in a bunch of ways. So seeing that, obviously me being there before, he’s going to be just fine for sure.”
Gray’s absence is the only thing that could lead to bigger opportunities. Marcus Major, who struggled with injuries during the second half of the season, was seen wearing a medical boot during Monday’s practice and his status for the game is uncertain.
While that likely means even more carries for Barnes, it could also create a bigger opportunity for Gavin Sawchuck. The freshman running back has recorded just two carries this season, but the bowl game could be a big chance for the former four-star recruit to see the field.
Barnes is confident in Sawchuck, too.
“I feel like Gavin has been great,” Barnes said. “The whole season Gavin has been great and always [has] a smile on his face. He’s been confident, even during the lows. Always keeping us up. That’s why I always love going to Gavin. Anything I do wrong, he makes sure I keep my head up.”
The bowl game is also an opportunity for Barnes and Sawchuck to establish themselves heading into next season.
Outside of Major and current sophomore Tawee Walker, the Sooners’ running back room next year will mostly consist of underclassmen. The Sooners signed running backs Daylan Smothers and Kalib Hicks to their 2023 class on Wednesday, as well as preferred walk-on Chapman McKown.
There will be several young players vying for playing time next season. But a big performance against the 13th-ranked Seminoles could help Barnes separate himself from the rest.
OU tight end Brayden Willis expects Barnes to have that standout game next Thursday.
“If y’all could go through the records and dig up from my podcast, I said from the jump that I thought he was going to be a great player,” Willis said of Barnes. “The biggest message that I would have for him is just stay confident. Go in there with confidence. He’s prepared well. Coach Murray is going to have him very prepared and the O-line is going to be ready.
“Just go out there and show out. Have a day. Welcoming party.”
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