The list of massively successful, bruising Texas running backs is significant -- Earl Campbell, Ricky Williams, Cedric Benson. Take it all the way back to Steve Worster in the Wishbone days even, as though he was a fullback, he still ran for 36 touchdowns at Texas.
For current backs Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown, both entering their second year in the program, to place themselves in that rarified air, they have to stay healthy, the exact challenge that Texas head coach Mack Brown has made clear to them this spring.
Bergeron suffered a hamstring injury against Texas Tech that limited him for the rest of the season, even into the Holiday Bowl, while Brown had a turf knee that flared up following the Kansas game that lingered, as well as a knee injury that followed.
The problem, according to Brown, is that those same type of issues recurred in the offseason program:
He and Malcolm [Brown] both had their pulls and strains throughout the offseason program. So it really concerned us that here we are with the same problems we had at the end of the season.
Of course, the workload also makes a difference, especially for young backs like Brown and Bergeron last year who hadn't had the benefit of much time spent in the Texas strength and conditioning program. Both suffered their injuries after carrying the ball 29 times -- a workload they were clearly not ready to handle.
At the start of the spring, Brown acknowledged that the 'Horns have to find a better balance than they had during the injurious stretch against Tech and Kansas:
Keep them happy. Keep them healthy. And then if one of them got the hot hand, keep them in. And then you don't get one carrying it 30 times a game.
Based on the available evidence, the coaches clearly failed in that respect last year and have hopefully learned a lesson from the experience -- ride the hot hand, but not too hard.
For both to make a leap as sophomores, being the best means staying on the field, point blank:
You've got to stay healthy. And it's a harsh thing to say. But if you're a guy who stays hurt and can't be on the field consistently, then you'll never be a great player.
A strong challenge from Brown, to be sure, but not necessarily a new one. The Texas head coach had already held forth on the topic this spring:
So if you're getting hurt, why? You're not getting enough sleep. You're not taking care of your body. Why are you hurt? Or, if your guy is hurt all the time, you can't play if you're hurt all the time. So you're going to be a good backup player but if you can't participate in the games, we can't play you. We'll let you play some, but we can't count on you being a star. Stars are tough. Stars practice every day, and stars are the hardest workers on your team. And that's what Vince Young was. That's what Colt McCoy was. That's what Cedric Benson was.
Brown essentially made the same point again on Tuesday:
Ricky Williams never got hurt while I was here. Cedric Benson never missed a game while I was here that I remember. Jamaal Charles stayed hurt some. But of those three that are top NFL backs, two of them. In fact, Cedric Benson against Michigan, the first play of the game, hyperextended his knee and the doctor said, "I'm not sure I would play if I was you because you're a first round draft choice." [Benson] said, "Tape it up, I'm going to play. " He went back in and played every play. That's the attitude we want to get on this football team.
It's an attitude Brown feels has been absent at times with his football team, though he wasn't specifically targeting Brown and Bergeron.
The end result for the two backs, however, is that the focus this spring has been on all the little things that it takes to stay healthy:
So one of the things that Malcolm and Joe needed to accomplish this spring, and they've done it so far, is make sure that they took care of their bodies and they stretch properly and they eat properly and they get well and can stay well, because it's such a bruising position that we're going to have enough guys next year we can rotate guys and we can keep them out there just a limited amount of time and keep them fresh.
So far, so good, then.
For Bergeron, his physical fitness level should help make a positive difference. Now at a lean 240 pounds, Bergeron still looks like he weighs 220:
His weight has fluctuated between 238 and 241, and he hasn't lost one ounce of speed. And some of his high school teammates came to one of the junior days and saw him and said; My gosh, he looks like he's really lost weight. So I didn't think about it. I hadn't heard anything. I didn't see nothing. I walked over and asked him. And he said, "I'm 241. I've actually gained weight." But he's lost body fat. He's in great shape.
His sturdy build should help him avoid some dings, a task more difficult for the taller Brown, who also runs higher and presents the type of larger tackling surface that can often cause more injuries to those backs than the shorter backs.
A guy who quickly earned a reputation for punishing defenders (even reportedly running over and through Kenny Vaccaro), Bergeron's running style and his ability to slide cut through defenders have been revelations during his short career after he was projected as an H-back or fullback coming out of high school. In fact, there's a growing sense that Bergeron is currently the best back on the team and seriously vying for the starting role.
In the end, though, which one ends up as the starter in the fall doesn't matter -- instead, it's about the overall quality of the group, which will add blue-chip running back Johnathan Gray to the fold:
We've got to make sure we're established at tailback. If we've committed to being a physical football, you better be really good at tailback, you can't be average.
With the three aforementioned backs, supported by DJ Monroe and another incoming freshman in Daje Johnson, the Texas running back rotation should be anything but average.
As long as they can stay healthy and on the field that is.