January 21, 2009

Texas running game had no identity in 2008

Overcoming the lack of a featured back with Jamaal Charles surprising coaches and leaving early proved to be one of the monumental feats of the Longhorns' 12-1 season in 2008.

It truly was a running back by committee - out of necessity.

Preseason expectation: The coaches really thought Foswhitt Whittaker was going to be a difference maker at tailback, and he suffered a preseason knee injury and couldn't establish himself to start the year.

That opportunity went to sophomore Vondrell McGee, who got 12 carries ( for 63 yards and a score) in the opener against Florida Atlantic; 16 carries (for 48 yards) against Arkansas in Game 4; and 10 carries against Baylor (for 55 yards) in Game 10.

Chris Ogbonnaya got the start in Game 2 at UTEP, but he only had one run for one yard. As was the case for Ogbonnaya most of the season, however, he had three catches for 35 yards. In fact, in 11 of the 13 games this season, Ogbonnaya had more yards receiving than rushing, including a key performance at Colorado.

Even though redshirt freshman Cody Johnson got the start against the Buffaloes in Game 5, Ogbonnaya had nine rushes for 71 yards and a score as well as six catches for 116 yards and a TD through the air in a 38-14 Longhorns' victory.

Mack Brown said after the Colorado game coaches knew what they had in Ogbonnaya all along, but Ogbonnaya got only his second start of the season in Game 6 against Oklahoma the following week. It would prove to be the career highlight for the fifth-year senior who had overcome so much personal tragedy.

By the time Ogbonnaya was done with the Sooners, he had 15 carries for 127 yards, including a game-icing 62-yard run that helped set up UT's final sore in a 45-35 victory.

Ogbonnaya knew about perseverance. He had lost two adopted brothers in high school - one in a car accident, the other who dropped dead on the basketball court with an undetected heart condition right in front of Ogbonnaya.

Ogbonnaya started the next four games, but a nagging ankle injury and the re-emergence of Whittaker, who had a few gut-check runs late in a near-comeback against Texas Tech (six carries for 42 yards, 7.0 ypc), cleared the way for Fozzy.

Fozzy got the starts against Baylor (15 carries for 75 yards) in Game 10 and Kansas (13 for 5 yards) in Game 11, but a tough day on the ground against the Jayhawks, allowed a healthy Ogbonnaya to re-enter the starting lineup in Game 13 against Texas A&M.

True to the way things had gone all season, it was Johnson who ended up stealing the show against the Aggies, rushing eight times for 102 yards and two touchdowns with a long run of 61 yards. Johnson's performance would mark only the second 100-yard game by a back all season (Ogbonnaya's 127 against OU was the other). Including McCoy's 100-yard game rushing against Florida Atlantic (103), Texas had only three 100-yard rushing performances all season - the fewest since 2006, when UT had only two 100-yard rushers.


Chris Ogbonnaya, Senior, 6-1, 215:

Ran 74 times for 373 yards and four touchdowns with a 5.0 yards-per-carry average.


Ogbonnaya proved to be huge. I'm not sure coaches ever expected him to start seven games this season, but Ogbonnaya earned every one. His performance at Colorado, followed up by his demolition of the Sooners were the two best games by a back all season. Ogbonnaya did it all - ran, caught the ball and blocked. A nagging ankle injury affected him against Texas Tech, when UT wanted to establish the run and couldn't.

Vondrell McGee, sophomore, 5-10, 205: Ran 88 times for 376 yards and four touchdowns with a 4.3 yards-per-carry average

McGee had a great opportunity to seize the job all season as Whittaker battled injuries, and Ogbonnaya did a lot of his damage on third downs. But McGee couldn't do it. He didn't get a single carry against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. But McGee has indicated to coaches he's happy and will stay at Texas. McGee did most of his work at Longview out of the I-formation. The transition to the shotgun has proven more difficult than expected.

Cody Johnson, redshirt freshman, 5-11, 255: Ran 76 times for 338 yards and 12 touchdowns with a 4.4 yards-per-carry average

By far the biggest surprise of the season. Coaches would like him to slim down to 235 or 240, but Johnson proved invaluable in short-yardage and goal-line situations, and teammates love the intensity Johnson runs with. His best day as a Longhorn came against the Aggies this season, when he came in in the second half and just wore A&M down, including his 61-yard burst. His 2-yard rush on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter of the Fiesta Bowl helped sustain a touchdown drive that gave Texas its first lead of the game, 10-6.


Fozzy Whittaker, redshirt freshman, 5-10, 190: Ran 64 times for 284 yards and zero touchdowns with a 4.4-yards per carry average

Whittaker showed his ability early as the only back to average more than 4 yards per carry at UTEP in Game 2. But injuries to both knees kept him from settling in and becoming the guy this season. Whittaker's best performance came in the second half against Texas Tech. He ran six times for 42 yards, including a 21-yard blast on an 11-play, 80-yard drive that put Texas up, 33-32, with 1:29 left.

Jeremy Hills, freshman, 6-0, 187: Ran 16 times for 84 yards and zero touchdowns with a 5.2 yards-per-carry average

All of Hills' work came in mop-up duty with his best showing coming late in the game at Kansas. Hills had runs of 32 and 9 yards as Texas ran out the clock on a 35-7 victory in Lawrence.


FINAL ANALYSIS: While Texas ran for a respectable 2,177 yards this season, it couldn't establish the run when it wanted to most, namely at Texas Tech in the team's only loss. In that game, Whittaker, who averaged 7 yards per carry, didn't even get a look from coaches until there were seven minutes left in the third quarter with UT trailing, 29-13. Knowing who to use and when seemed to be an ongoing struggle for coaches this season. But when you can go 12-1 without a featured back, it's hard to nit-pick.

Ogbonnaya gets my MVP vote at the position because of his critical play-making in the Longhorns' biggest game of the year against OU. He also provided critical leadership at a position that had very little game experience coming into the season.

Heading into the spring, it will be a lively battle as Whittaker, McGee, Johnson, Hills and redshirt freshman Tre Newton go at it. Coaches were extremely pleased with the hard running of Newton in the bowl practices. Someone needs to emerge who can help replace the production of Ogbonnaya, the only back Texas loses to graduation.

The goal is for Texas to have a running threat defenses have to worry about. This season, that was Colt McCoy. Next season, it needs to be someone else. Even if it means using someone like DeSean Hales in a Percy Harvin-type role. Texas needs to be able to scare defenses on the ground with something other than McCoy's legs.


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