Texas Football 2012: Running Back Position Preview

The slide cut -- a specialty for Joe Bergeron. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)
# Name Ht Wt Class
28
Malcolm Brown
6-0 223 Sophomore
24
Joe Bergeron
6-1 230 Sophomore
5 Jeremy Hills
6-0 205 Senior
32 Johnathan Gray
Ht Wt Freshman
21 Daje Johnson
5-11 184 Freshman
26 DJ Monroe 5-9 175 Senior
30 Ryan Roberson 5-11 240 Senior
13 Chet Moss 6-2 255 Sophomore
36 Alex De La Torre 6-1 230 Freshman

With fall camp rapidly approaching, BON is taking a look at the storylines surrounding each position entering the 2012 season. After talking about the quarterbacks on Tuesday, it's time to talk about arguably the most talented position on the roster -- running back.

Departures: Fozzy Whittaker, Cody Johnson, Jamison Berryhill.

Since Fozzy Whittaker's career tragically ended early in that heartbreaking moment on the bush league turf of Faurot Field, the Longhorns already developed a sense of what life without the breakout senior was going to be like by the end of the season. Combined with the injuries to Brown and Bergeron, it wasn't a pretty view.

Just when the Mythical Fozzy Creature made the transition from myth to reality, he was forced to recede again into myth. But what an addition to his legacy he made.

Much love Fozzy, always.

After Johnson made the move to fullback as a senior, he gradually stepped into the role before finishing the season strongly, while fan favorite Berryhill earned a scholarship after walking on, held the position down until Johnson improved, and still provided effective play in short-yardage situations that featured Johnson as the ball-carrier. Interestingly enough, Berryhill opted to forgo his final season of eligibility and said that he was done with football, only to sign an undrafted free agent deal with the Baltimore Ravens.

Arrivals: Johnathan Gray (Aledo), Daje Johnson (Pflugerville Hendrickson)

The monumental arrival is Gray. In many other recent seasons -- like the three-plus years between Jamaal Charles bolting Austin and the middle of last season -- a record-setting high school superstar like Gray would be expected to step in and demand a significant amount of immediate playing time.

Not this year.

It's a positive, then, that Gray will only be asked to come and fill a role similar to that held by Whittaker last season -- the possible Wildcat back, but more importantly, a pure zone-back with the vision and feet to find and hit creases in the zone-blocking schemes employed by Texas in 11 personnel, a running style that doesn't fit either Brown or Bergeron particularly well.

As for Johnson, there's been a significant amount of buzz surrounding him during the summer, as 7-on-7 showcases his speed and receiving ability out of the backfield. There's some question about how natural of a pass-catcher he is -- better than DJ Monroe, but probably not anything approaching a true receiver with soft, flypaper hands.

It wouldn't be a surprise to see him steal some carries from Monroe since he is a more dynamic runner, as well as receive a look at kick returner. Possibly even on punts, too, if he can wrestle the spot from Jaxon Shipley and Quandre Diggs.

Starters: If there's a starter atop the depth chart at running back when Texas takes the field against Wyoming in DKR on September 1st, the title will be nothing more than honorary, as Bergeron and Brown should split the majority of the carries in the heavier personnel packages (one tight end, one H-back or fullback). After both wore down last season, the idea is to ride the hot hand, but still balance carries enough so as not to wear down either.

Mack Brown challenged both in the spring to do what it takes to stay healthy. A new team nutritionist and more time with Bennie Wylie should have helped both maximize whatever inherent work ethic they have as their baseline during the summer. And the height of those make-up baselines has never really been in question for either, except for some minor worrying when Brown was carrying a few extra pounds in his midsection at the start of his senior season.

The offense should be more balanced this season, a repeated topic for coach Brown throughout the spring and now into the start of fall practice, so it's hard to project Brown and Bergeron to both break the 1,000-yard plateau, especially with Johnathan Gray and the various Wildcat packages or other looks that will take carries from the two load backs.

More important will be the yards per carry for both -- to see Brown recover after averaging only 2.7 yards per carry after his injury against Kansas and Bergeron prove that he achieve a level of effectiveness against solid or good defenses that he showed against a terrible defense like Texas Tech.

With Brown, the expectation is certainly that he will recover from his injuries to return to his early and mid-season form, but the enduring question mark, the one that has followed him in my mind since high school, is whether he can ever break off big runs as a Longhorn. Bergeron already did it in limited action. Even if Brown can't, he'll still be a good college back.

The exciting thing here is that question isn't about how good the Texas backfield will be with Brown and Bergeron leading the way, rather just how good they will be. Ricky Williams challenged them this spring by pointing out that the standard at Texas is getting a statue. High stakes, high expectations.

Depth: It was only hinted at above, but Texas should be as deep at this position as any team in the country. While that still doesn't mean that injuries to Brown, Bergeron, and this year's Fozzy Whittaker, Johnathan Gray, would still allow the run game to roll along, there's no team in the country of which I'm aware that could survive a similar hit. With the two sophomore backs ostensibly stronger and, therefore, less prone to injury, it should be less of a worry.

Really, the hardest thing to do for Harsin will be to figure out how to distribute carries and how the ride the hot hand. It's a good problem for an offensive coordinator to have.

Obligatory mention of Jeremy Hills and his exploits as a spring superstar. Jeremy Hills, spring superstar!

Recruiting: A deep depth chart can scare away some recruits, while unquestionably serving as a negative recruiting target for opposing coaches. In light of that perspective, Texas landing Arlington Martin's Kyle Hicks was something of a coup. Merely a solid athlete with his top-end speed, Hicks was still good enough to convince some evaluators that he could play cornerback and even has a better, more ideal build for the running back position.

The concern with Hicks is that he's suffered multiple foot injuries. For skill position players, recurring foot issues aren't the death knell that such injuries can toll for offensive linemen, but it's not a good sign either. A healthy fall and spring leading up to his enrollment at Texas would be a major positive sign.

Hicks was the real target in state after eventual Oklahoma commit Keith Ford made it clear that he wasn't interested in Texas, in particular navigating the depth char, though as a Florida native he never had the usual ties that often provide the Longhorns an advantage in such recruitments.

2012 signee Kennedy Estelle's former high school teammate, James White, was also on the radar, but he's more in the mold of a less-talented Malcolm Brown, so despite his invitation to the second Junior Day, Longhorn interest in him was always going to be dependent on what Hicks did as the top player on the Texas board.

The coaching staff also went after DeSoto all-purpose back Dontre Wilson, but he was never sold on not getting any carries in the DJ Monroe role (who could blame him). Unfortunately, as easy as it is to criticize the staff for that sales pitch, there was never really much they could promise, except for pure promises. So, yeah.

A visit to Oregon in the spring helped him overcome the distance factor, in large part due to a meeting with another Texas back who had a successful run in the Pacific Northwest -- none other than LaMichael James, who really helped start the Texas-to-Oregon pipeline. And, in the end, the fit was always good for Wilson there, especially after Texas took Johnson, which took pressure off the 'Horns to land Wilson, even as it muddied the depth chart for the DeSoto product.

What to watch for in fall camp: Past whatever happens on the depth chart with Brown and Bergeron, there probably won't be a lot of drama beyond filling the Wildcat package, which is the major storyline. After that, it's just about how much of a factor Gray will likely be, and whether Johnson can provide a more dynamic presence than Monroe to earn the increased package of plays that Monroe was never seemingly able to demand.

And, uh, everyone should probably stay healthy to ensure optimum running-game capacity this year. Looking at you, Killer B's.

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