February 24, 2009

Spring football: UT in search of a lead back

With spring football starting Friday, we preview the running back position …

On the roster: Vondrell McGee, junior, 5-10, 205; Foswhitt Whittaker, sophomore, 5-10, 190; Cody Johnson, sophomore, 5-11, 250; Jeremy Hills, sophomore, 6-0, 187; Tre Newton, redshirt freshman, 6-0, 200; Antwan Cobb, junior, 6-0, 215; Chris Whaley, freshman, 6-3, 235

The battle: There's a lot going on here. The coaches are going to tinker with the running game this spring to see if they can get a more "downhill" running attack. They are going to explore putting Colt McCoy under center more. Ideally, they'd like to have a one-back offense with an H-back that can motion to fullback or flex out to a slot receiver position. This would allow UT to use multiple formations with the same personnel on the field. The goal is to be able to run at the end of games in the team's four-minute drill to kill the clock. Memories are also still fresh from the Longhorns' loss in Lubbock last season, when UT wanted to run the ball and couldn't. Texas has numbers at this position, with the exception of Cobb, who is more of a fullback. But here are Mack Brown's two requirements to play running back right now: ball protection and blitz pickup. The running backs did an outstanding job with ball protection last season, failing to lose a single fumble. Brown couldn't remember ever having a season like it from that perspective. But struggles to pick up the blitz will land you on the bench. That's a big reason McGee didn't play in the Fiesta Bowl. He struggled with some blitz pickup against Texas A&M and in practices for the bowl game, and that was that.

Coaches want to see Whittaker get stronger. They worry he could be bullied by bigger, blitzing defenders. Hills is going to get a close look in the spring. Coaches burned his redshirt when Whittaker struggled with knee injuries early in the 2008 season. Hills showed a couple sparks in games, including a late run at Kansas. Coaches were very impressed with Newton in bowl practices, and they've also stopped looking at Johnson as a fullback and want to see what he can do at tailback. Johnson's weight is no longer an issue. The training staff feels like Johnson is big-boned, like Leonard Davis. So now they are just monitoring his body fat. So Johnson could play at 250 pounds. Johnson had one of the two 100-yard games by backs last season (102 vs. Texas A&M), along with Chris Ogbonnaya's 127 yards rushing against Oklahoma. (The only other 100-yard rushing game by a Longhorn was McCoy going for 103 in the opener against Florida Atlantic.)

Who could surprise in the spring: Coaches have a pretty good body of work to evaluate McGee (88 carries for 376 yards, 4.3 ypc, 4 TDs), Johnson (76 carries for 338 yards, 4.4 ypc, 12 TDs) and Whittaker (64 carries for 284 yards, 4.4 ypc, 0 TDs). Now, they really have to evaluate the newbies, guys like Hills (16 carries for 84 yards, 5.2 ypc, 0 TDs) and Newton, who played in a one-back, spread offense at Southlake Carroll. Newton can catch and he's above average with blitz pickup because of his experience in Carroll's offense. My vote for the guy who could surprise is Newton with Johnson running a close second. Johnson used to be a fumbler in practice who has now gained the coaches' trust. Newton is a smart kid with confidence and big goals. Johnson's enthusiasm is contagious. His teammates love him, and he can pound the rock.

Final analysis: Someone better break out of this pack heading into the fall because Chris Whaley will get a long look in August. At Texas, the Longhorns have been at their best when they've had a lead back and a backup who can spell him without much dropoff (think Cedric Benson and Selvin Young in 2002). Last season, Texas simply kept rummaging through the pile to find a lead back before settling on Chris Ogbonnaya, who became a great complement to McCoy's pinpoint passing. Ogbonnaya's 46 catches may be the hardest thing to replace on offense. And if Texas can find a functional tight end in 2009, some of those catches should go away from the running back and to the tight end. So if I'm a running back at Texas, I've been working like crazy on my blitz pickup and pass-catching. As long as McCoy is upright and throwing the football, Texas doesn't need Ricky Williams in the backfield. UT is going to be a pass-first offense because McCoy is the most accurate QB in Division I-A history. But coaches didn't like the number of runs for negative or zero yards last season. When they run it, they want to gain 4 yards. This search for a "downhill" running game will have a lot to do with the run-blocking of the offensive line. We'll take that up in our next preview.

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