2011 overview: The 2011 narrative is still writing itself as of this moment and that will continue to be the case until Malcolm Brown makes his decision some time in the next two months. Running back is one of the biggest needs in the class and despite the essentially unmitigated success at every other position in the class, much of the eventual narrative in the class will revolve around whether or not the Longhorns will be able to land that elusive game-changing back missing since Jamaal Charles departed early after the 2007 season.
The player already in the fold in the class is often overlooked because of the emphasis on Malcolm Brown and, to a lesser extent, SA Madison's Aaron Green. North Mesquite's Joe Bergeron is one of the best fullback prospects to come out of the state in years and is one of the players who heralds the much-discussed change in running style the Longhorns will employ in 2010 and going forward. Don't underestimate his importance to the future of the Texas running game.
Projected 2012 numbers: Two. Currently, the Longhorns have nine running backs on the roster and to maintain the same numbers, Texas would have to take one more running back in 2011 and three in 2012, but two seems more likely with scholarship numbers limited in the 2012 class overall.
GoBR's Wish List
Johnathan Gray, Aledo --The unquestioned star of the running back class and a player who will be right there with Cayleb Jones, Curtis Riser, and Derek David as the best 2012 prospects in the state. The son of former Texas Tech standout James Gray, the young Aledo back no doubt has the pedigree of a top running back, as well as prototypical size for the position at 5-11 and 190 pounds. He also has unquestioned toughness after leading Aledo to the a 4A state title while playing with a shoulder injury that required surgery in the off-season and hurt every time he took a hit on it.
Gray's legend began to grow as a true freshman playing varsity in 2008 as he picked up nearly 1,000 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. That was just a hint of what would come during his sophomore season, when Gray carried the ball 372 times for almost 2,800 yards and 50 touchdowns.
Aledo doesn't play in the toughest district in the state, but concerns about his competition level should be put aside -- Gray dominated in the state playoffs, including a monster game against Brenham in the state championship at DKR that saw him rip off 252 yards and score four touchdowns against a young but extremely talented Cub defense. Included in that yardage was a game-clinching 89-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that put the game out of reach and clinched the championship.
Gray is a short-strider who has elite top-end speed in the open field. Those short strides help him change direction on a dime. Since he is the perfect size for an every-down back in college, Gray has a low center of gravity that combined with his ability to run behind his pads helps him break arm tackles in high school. As expected for a player who is considered among the best in his class in the country, Gray also has excellent balance and an uncanny ability to set up opponents in the open field and find the end zone.
If there is one concern, it's Gray's ability to operate in tight spaces and finish runs, but his ability to play through pain takes care of the toughness questions and his 50 touchdowns as a sophomore means that there is plenty of film of him finding the end zone -- even those 50 plays would make for a long highlight reel, leaving little room for the run-of-the-mill runs that make up the majority of his carries. Basically, Gray has been so successful on the field in his first two years of high school that it's easy to put aside any potential concerns and simply focus on all the positives, which are plentiful.
Gray is unquestionably the best back in the state and there is little doubt that he will be the top target for Texas at the running back position in 2012.
Johnathan Gray - RB Aledo Class of 2012 Sophomore Highlight Clip (via TexasPreps)
Trey Williams, Spring Dekaney -- The dynamic, darting small back in the class, Williams is solidly built, with a surprising combination of quickness and toughness, as he has the ability to punish defenders and finish runs despite his size. At 5-9, the obvious concerns are about his blitz pick up, which is solid for a back of his height, and his durability, which is helped by his 190-pound frame. The overwhelming positives are his 35-inch vertical leap and reported 4.4 40 time. His low center of gravity gives him excellent balance and his soft hands help him excel as an all-around back.
Williams burst onto the scene with nearly 2,000 yards as a sophomore, including 375 yards and four touchdowns on 31 carries against Spring Westfield, then another 325 yards and four touchdowns on the same number of carries two games later.
Of all the backs in the class, Williams has been the most open about his affection for Texas.
Trey Williams Dekaney Football 2009 'He's Only a Sophomore' (via mrphilwill)
GoBR's Watch List
Ladarius Anthony, Kilgore -- Anthony's best attribute is clearly his speed -- even if his reported 4.45 40 time is not legitimate, visually it appears to at least be in line with other similarly inflated times. When Anthony gets into the open field, it's all over because there a only a handful of players in the state who could catch him from behind and those players aren't particularly likely to end up on the same field as Kilgore.
His frame is less ideal for a running back -- Anthony is a little on the lanky side at between 6-0 and 6-1 and doesn't appear to have a strong lower body. Consistently running behind his pads is a problem for Anthony and when combined with his lack of lower body strength it means that Anthony doesn't move the pile much. Other inconsistent areas include squaring his shoulders to the line of scrimmage and there isn't much evidence to suggest that Anthony has the feet to become an above-average college back.
His high school coach, who has seen Longhorns like Eddie Jones, Michael Huey, Dom Jones, and Britt Mitchell come through his program, calls Anthony the type of player who could excel at a variety of positions ($) and it seems like an apt description because at times Anthony does appear to be more of an athlete than a pure running back. There aren't any rumblings about a position change in college, but Anthony could be an excellent flanker or safety for a team bold enough to convince him to make the move.
Trent Jackson, Cuero -- The Cuero star burst onto the scene with more than 1,500 yards and 24 touchdowns as a freshman, averaging more than 12 yards per carry. It's was no fluke, as Jackson followed up with a sophomore campaign that saw him carry the ball close to 300 times, picking up 2,500 yards and scoring 35 touchdowns in the process.
Since film is available from both his freshman and sophomore seasons, it makes sense to compare what Jackson looks like across two years. As (most likely) a 15-year-old, Jackson showed some serious ability. Though his top speed as a frosh was nothing particularly special, it was his ability to run between the tackles while consistently staying behind his pads that stood out. In addition, Jackson made up for his lack of elite burst and top-end speed by still managing to find an extra gear in the open field. At times, Jackson did not look natural in the open field with his balance or vision.
Unsurprisingly, Jackson improved from his freshman to his sophomore season, notably in the areas of his top-end speed, balance, body control, and vision. Due to his natural increase in strength after a year working in the weight room, along with some improvements in his technique, Jackson looked faster in the open field as a sophomore, stretching his extra gear further than the previous season. At times uncertain and off balance in the open field, Jackson improved dramatically as a sophomore, using his low center of gravity to keep his balance more consistently and showing an improved vision to make the proper decision in the open field to turn long gains into touchdowns.
At the end of the day, though Jackson doesn't have a single skill that absolutely sets him apart from the other running backs in the class, his great appeal lies in his ability to do a lot of things well as a runner (there is little or no evidence of his involvement in the passing game from his film). Jackson has experience coming downhill as Cuero operated from under center, helping his patience, vision, and feet -- the Gobbler back doesn't waste time getting downhill, has the ability to plant his foot and get upfield while squaring his shoulders to the line of scrimmage and can also hide behind his offensive line before using his solid feet and good burst to accelerate through a developing hole.
It's questionable right now whether he could make any difference in the passing game and probably doesn't have much experience picking up blitzes, so those are questions marks surrounding his versatility as an all-around back, but there's no question about his ability as a runner -- he doesn't have the electricity of Gray or even Anthony, but Jackson is just such a solid runner that it's hard not to see him as an above average college running back.
Things don't sound particularly promising early in the process with Jackson, however -- the talented back is high on Texas A&M, calling it the only Texas school he's interested in attending ($), while citing Alabama as a childhood favorite. Jackson began following the Aggies last season and developed a high regard for their offense.
Dennis Smith, Wimberly -- Smith is the biggest and most bruising of the large backs in the class, also playing linebacker for Wimberley. Committed to A&M this spring. Registered on the radar after a sensational freshman season, but there are questions about his top-end speed.
RB Dennis Smith #5 *COMMITTED TO TEXAS A&M* Wimberley HS (FR/SOPH HL) (via CountdownCityPreps)
Early 2012 Narrative
Frankly, the 2012 narrative at the running back position can't receive much consideration until the 2011 running back narrative finishes writing itself -- the two are much too deeply intertwined to separate. With that being said, the outcome of the 2011 narrative will push the 2012 narrative in one of two directions: 1) a commitment from Malcolm Brown and/or Aaron Green slows down the pack of wolves coming after Major Applewhite and makes Johnathan Gray a bonus, or 2) the Longhorns somehow go another recruiting season failing to land an impact running back and criticism of both the offense and Applewhite in particular increase to a raging chorus, making Gray absolutely can't-miss.
According to early conventional wisdom, this is a show-me type of season for Texas and Johnathan Gray -- if the Longhorns resurrect the stagnant running game this fall, then Gray likely becomes a Longhorn. However, if Gilbert and company scuffle as the running game has done for each of the two seasons following the departure of Jamaal Charles, Gray could end up crossing the Red River and becoming a Sooner. Texas Tech is certainly in the mix as well due to his father's ties to the program, but the Red Raiders will probably be on the outside looking in.
If the presence of two big-time 2010 recruits and Brandon Williams doesn't scare off Gray -- once again, the best players usually find depth chart talk demeaning to their talent -- then landing Brown and/or Green should have little impact on Gray's decision.
The strategy in 2012 recruiting could end looking much like 2011 -- if the coaches want a smaller, Fozzy Whittaker type in the class, it looks like they could possibly wrap up Trey Williams quickly with a first Junior Day invite and offer, then go all in pursuing Gray, as they have done with Brown in 2011. The question is how the Longhorns choose to approach players like Anthony and Jackson, both talents in their own right who would represent back-up plans in case of losing Gray, but would be unlikely to receive an offer at the same time as Gray, especially if Williams is in the mix early.
For a second year in the a row, the running back position should go a long way in 2012 towards determining the overall narrative in the class and if the Longhorns lose out on Brown and Green, the reaction to missing out on Gray as well is almost unconceivable. The ensuing meltdown would surely look like something straight off of TexAgs and that's a scary thought. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.