May 22, 2011

There appears to be a new attitude in Texas' run game

No 1,000-yard rusher at Texas since 2007. Heck, no 600-yard rusher since 2007.

The school that produced Earl Campbell, Roosevelt Leaks, Ricky Williams, Priest Holmes, Cedric Benson and Jamaal Charles has been a pass-first offense the past three seasons that couldn't find much balance.

When Mack Brown hired Bryan Harsin, he gave Harsin strict instructions: balance.

The great mystery going into the summer is WHO will provide the balance? Both passing and running.

Everyone expects it to be Garrett Gilbert and a combination of Fozzy Whittaker and Cody Johnson in 2011.

Gilbert is the only quarterback on the roster with any starting experience. Whittaker and Johnson are fifth-year seniors who have shown flashes of being able to provide a decent ground game.

The million-dollar question after the debacle that was 5-7 in 2010 is how much of the problem with the offense was talent and how much was scheme?
We will probably learn in 2011 it was a whole lot of both.

Cody Johnson started the season at tailback in 2010 and sprained his ankle in the first game against Rice. Texas couldn't make a yard when it needed to in short-yardage and goal line situations.

Whittaker suffered a shoulder stinger against Texas Tech in Week 3 that plagued him the rest of the season. And Tre' Newton, Texas' leading rusher in 2009, had to retire from the sport because of concussions.

We haven't seen Whittaker healthy long enough to know if he could have been special. The fact he can't stay healthy tells us he's not special.

Johnson is a good player, but he's only been given more than 20 carries once in his Texas career (last year he had 128 yards on 24 carries vs. Florida Atlantic. He finished with back-to-back 100-yard games after posting 107 yards rushing on 14 carries vs. Texas A&M, including a long run of 43 yards).

The only other time he got close to 20 carries were his 19 attempts for 109 yards in a victory against Baylor in 2009.

Games in which backs have been given 20 carries are about as rare as a Big Foot sighting at Texas lately.

Which brings us to Malcolm Brown. If he can learn his protections and all the nuances of being a complete back (learn the offense in a hurry, catch the football, etc.), a lot of things could change.

Brown's coach at Cibolo Steele, Mike Jinks, told me Brown is a student of the game and a fast learner. We'll see.

Here's a look at the running back position coming out of spring:

- Not a more likable guy on the team. Respected. Just needs a break from injury, which he's suffered every year he's played at Texas. Knee injuries before the 2008 and 2009 seasons and the stinger in the third game of 2010.

Coaches raved about his spring and feel like the best may have been saved for last in terms of Whittaker's UT career. Whittaker averaged 4.4 yards per carry last season (same as Cody Johnson) and had just 2 touchdowns.

These are hardly staggering numbers. In fact, these are very much "just a guy" numbers. And Whittaker has never averaged more than 4.4 ypc at Texas. He's never run for more than 351 yards in a season. (By contrast, Jamaal Charles averaged 6.3 ypc in 2007).

If a guy like Whittaker blows up in Harsin's offense, it will show just how much scheme matters and just how bad the O-lines have been in the three seasons Whittaker has taken the field.

CODY JOHNSON, SR, 5-11, 250 - The team's leading rusher in 2010 with 592 yards (4.4 ypc; 6 TDs; 53.8 ypg), Johnson has also battled injury and weight issues (sometimes at the same time) while at Texas. He's got the respect of his teammates because of his energy, enthusiasm, love for contact and competitive spirit.

Like Fozzy, he's never averaged more than 4.4 yards per carry. Cedric Benson averaged 4.98 ypc in his career. Heck, Ivan Williams averaged 4.94 ypc in his career, and Henry Melton averaged 4.73 ypc as a RB.

So 4.4 is not special. Again, if Johnson has a great senior season, a lot of credit will go to Harsin for creating room for him to run with scheme.

D.J. MONROE, JR, 5-9, 175 - When it comes to yards per carry in a career at Texas, only Ramonce Taylor (7.66 ypc) is better than Monroe's 7.35 ypc (46 carries for 338 yards). So we have every reason to believe Monroe is special. Yet, we've only seen him carry the ball 46 times in two seasons of action.

Under Greg Davis, Monroe needed to have the measurables of an every-down back to pick up the blitz in a pass-first offense. So Monroe was hardly ever on the field. But what we're hearing is that Harsin and Major Applewhite have a burning desire to find ways to get Monroe on the field to take advantage of his special talent.

Whether it's 5 carries a game or 10, something tells me we are going to see some serious "wow" plays from Monroe. Like the one we saw against Oklahoma last season in the first half, only to see Monroe buried on the bench for the rest of the game.

Let's hope those days of asking about Monroe's absence after every game are gone. I think they are.

JEREMY HILLS, JR, 6-0, 202 - Hills made an interesting decision to redshirt last season. It may have proven to be the wrong decision if Malcolm Brown and then Johnathan Gray show up as good as advertised. But we should see the best of Hills this season.

He had a good spring despite a groin injury. He lit up a couple scrimmages with long runs, caught the ball well and even threw a half-back pass to Darius Terrell for a TD. So Hills opened a few eyes. The younger brother of former Longhorn OT Tony Hills, Jeremy wants it bad. And that should bode well for him and Texas.

He's rushed 25 times for 170 yards in his career at Texas. That's 6.8 yards per carry and certainly can be described as explosive. The question with Hills was ball protection. If he's got that rectified, then Hills could be a real surprise in 2011.

TRAYLON SHEAD, R-FR, 6-2, 218 - Shead was a U.S. Army All-American and is Texas' all-time high school leader in rushing touchdowns with 141 (although Johnathan Gray is coming for that record) and second all-time in rushing yards (10,291). The big question is if Shead's talents will translate from Class A Cayuga to Division I-A football? I think we are still in a wait-and-see mode.

Shead battled a hamstring injury in the spring, which did not help his cause at all. So he'll have to show in the fall what he picked up in his redshirt season. A redshirt year can either make or break your confidence. We're about to find out with Shead.

FINAL ANALYSIS: Obviously, Malcolm Brown didn't take part in the spring, but he's the one who could arrive in June and start to shake things up. Brown is a student of the game and will work tirelessly to learn the offense.

If he's as good as advertised, Harsin and Applewhite may decide it's better to live with Brown's inexperience and let him learn under fire and get all the first-team reps in practice so that he reaches his potential at Texas as quickly as possible.

Joe Bergeron also adds an interesting wrinkle to the running game. He is seen as a guy who could line up in front of Brown in the backfield or serve as versatile, H-back type player. But he is also explosive and could find a role in the offense quickly.

Between Monroe and Hills, there's explosive talent on the roster at RB. And I realize raising hopes about Monroe at Texas is a bit like crying wolf for the umpteenth time. But I think the mindset of the coaching staff is different toward Monroe. Major Applewhite keeps stressing that there's room for Monroe in this offense. I'll take him at his word.

There's sturdy leadership in Fozzy and Cody, and maybe a hidden gem in Shead. Combine all those names with Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron in Harsin's offense, and something tells me the balance may finally be back at Texas, even if it's a group effort.

I get the sense, with what Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray are being told, Texas would like to have two guys it can rotate at the RB position to keep both guys fresh. We'll see if that starts to take shape this season (provided two guys can separate).

Since Jamaal Charles jumped to the NFL as a junior after the 2007 season, Texas hasn't had a leading rusher reach 600 yards on the ground.

- Jamaal Charles, 1619, 6.3 ypc, 18 TD, 124.5 ypg (5.0 ypc as a team)

2008 - Colt McCoy 561 yards rushing in 2008; 4.1 ypc, 11 TD, 43.2 ypg (4.3 ypc as a team)

2009 - Tre Newton 552 yards, 4.8 ypc, 6 TDs, 39.4 ypg (4.0 ypc as a team)

2010 - Cody Johnson 592 yards, 4.4 ypc, 6 TD, 53.8 ypg (4.2 ypc as a team)

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