That's Flavor of the Week at Running Back, the popular installment from last season that saw an excuse for just about every running back on the roster at some point (Jamison Berryhill against UTEP! No, Jeremy Hills! Vondrell!) and with no separation of anyone from anything, the feature looks ripe to continue.
The thought that just made me wince? Chris Whaley doesn't even look like a likely candidate for a coveted FoTW nod this season. Moving on...
The first recipient of 2010, as the third week of practice gets under way? Cody Johnson, bludgeon of the Baylor and UCF games and check-down maestro for a few brief moments. Short-yardage extraordinaire, a mission satisfactory enough for most Longhorn fans, especially after the disastrous goalline failure in Manhattan in 2006.
Third and short, two chances, Johnson will pick up the yardage -- the big back converted seven of 12 third-down chances of three yards or less and both fourth down carries he attempted. Not a bad success rate.
But is there more to Johnson as a running back other than picking up first downs and finding the end zone?
Just a simple bludgeon?
Last year, the staff and some prominent voices (PB among them) mostly wrote off Johnson as an every-down back, Mack Brown among them:
It’s funny, we kind of gave up and said it looks like you’re going to be a short-yardage, goal-line back and that’s fine if that’s what you want to be for the rest of your career at Texas.
Though his feet and physical style appealed to the coaching staff, his lack of conditioning and frequent injuries -- like the hamstring injury that presumably knocked him from the starting position in spring 2009 -- relegated the Waller product once again last year to the short-yardage specialty role in which he's excelled throughout his career.
According to Mack Brown, there have been flashes followed by setbacks:
Every year we sat here and said Cody is doing great in the spring and he pulls a hamstring. Cody is doing great, well he’s out.
Judging by the buzz about Johnson emerging from fall camp, the junior running back worked hard in the off-season to improve his conditioning and avoid the nagging injuries that slowed him down at times over the previous two years.
Faster, stronger bludgeon
The result is a player who has the coaches talking about in glowing terms about his progress, including Mack Brown:
We’ve made it further this time. We’re actually in a position where he’s done everything right in preparing to play. We’re still 11 days from game time. Hopefully he’ll be able to accomplish the things the season this year that he’s prepared for. He’s never prepared this hard. Right now his preparation has paid off and his conditioning and his confidence.
That weight re-dstribution is the crucial factor in Johnson's surge towards the top of the depth chart. According to the coaching staff, Johnson turned between three and five percent body fat into muscle during the off-season, a major conditioning gain for a player never as fit as Mack Brown and company wanted.
I would think the biggest thing with Cody; he’s learned, he’s in shape, he lost a lot of body fat, but he kept the same weight. It’s great conditioned weight right now. We’re really proud of what he’s done.
Unlike the high cut Whaley, Johnson has the perfect build for a 250-pound running back -- short and stocky, with a low center of gravity, impressive feet and initial, powerful burst and short-area acceleration for his size.
The obvious preference is for one back to gain separation and has been for some time, Mack Brown has been vociferous about that at every occasion, but it's clear that isn't going to happen and the willingness of the coaching staff to embrace the exact opposite of what they really want shows how they still want to believe in Johnson as some part of the solution for the running game.
Scheme versatile enough?
The buzz around Johnson suggests that while he's now in the mix with Tre' Newton and Fozzy Whiitaker for the starting job, the issue of his scheme versatility remains. He hasn't been fumble prone during his career, but coughed a ball up on a long run -- at the point of the play when he should have been happy to go down protecting the football -- and had couldn't catch a pass from Gilbert that resulted in an interception during the second open practice.
The point here is much more about the second than the first -- Johnson made himself a valuable check-down threat over the middle last season at times (five catches for 29 yards against Baylor and UCF), but isn't the type of player Texas can consistently split out wide in the empty set, limiting his scheme versatility -- yes, that hasn't changed, even with the weight re-distribution. Not going to either, that's been a given for years.
Ideally, the offense looks like it's moving in a direction where it can feature a tight end/H-back at all times and a running back capable of being a threat as a receiver. Both Newton and Whittaker would be more effective in those situations.
So expect Johnson to see some early playing time in an effort to establish the run in certain games and possibly take a chance or two downfield, as well as continue his valuable role as short-yardage and late-game bludgeon. Last season, Johnson received many of his carries when the Longhorns were well in the lead and significantly bolstered his running stats in those situations -- 4.5 ypc when ahead by eight or more points.
If Texas gets behind, Johnson will still surely yield to the more versatile backs once again and there's no surprise there.
What's clear is that Johnson's newly improved work ethic has endeared himself to Brown and after being tough on him at times, the Texas head coach sounds like he is firmly on Johnson's corner supporting him now:
I’m really happy for him. But after three years of hope and expectations, I’m really pulling for him now because he is working so hard. I see him sitting in Major’s meeting with a pad and pencil and looking at every pickup and he’s such a great blocker and he’s taking care of the ball and he’s really excited about his new self. He’s kind of reinvented himself and that’s fun, that’s what you love to see with college teams and to continue to be good, you have to have that.
Even if he's still not an every-down back with the capability of stretching defenses when split out as a receiver, Johnson's improved conditioning opens up an opportunity for him to carry the ball both early and late in addition to his normal duties as short-yardage battering ram and as much as that keeps any clarity from developing at the running back position, it's still an overwhelmingly positive sign for the 2010 Texas Longhorns.
What will Cody Johnson's role end up being this season for the 'Horns?
Viable every-down threat with versatility to help in the passing game (225 votes)
Situationally effective runner early or late in games (348 votes)
Short-yardage battering ram (159 votes)
732 total votes