When Texas Longhorns head coach Mack Brown talks about the philosophy-altering moments he experienced in games against Ohio State and Alabama, those moments that heralded that full-on meltdown that was to come, there's also another game that stands out to him.
It was during a time when the Longhorns were mostly playing with three true wide receivers and a flex tight end, in 2009 noted equestrienne fan Dan Buckner, following Jordan Shipley's success in that role the previous year when the 'Horns upset the Sooners.
After the game, Brown reversed course a bit, inserting EBS into the game against Oklahoma that season in an attempt to jump-start the running game, with modest results.
It was the game against Colorado that made him reassess:
And then I'll never forget the Colorado game in '09 where we there were about three third down and fours or less, and we threw it every time. And I think we didn't make any of the four, and I wanted to throw up leaving the field. We'd won the game 38 to 12 or something, and I was sick. I didn't like who we were and where we were headed. And we still had a chance to win the national championship that year. But I could see that we had to be throwing it really, really well, and that's who we had become, and I don't think that's fair to Texas. There's too many good backs in this state. There's too many good linemen in this state. It's not who we've been. We need to get back and be who we were when we got here, and that's balanced.
My lasting memory of that game is of Buckner being asked to crack back on someone bigger than him on a shovel pass and Buckner showing absolutely no interest. Like, one of those plays that you feel the coaches throw out there just to see how a guy will react. If it was, Buckner failed. Even if it wasn't, Buckner still failed. That was the state of the Texas running game at that point.
As in, bad enough to almost make Brown violently ill.
The Alabama game just solidified those feelings for Brown, who kind of checked out for a bit because of that heartbreak. When he finally came back up again, he managed to have it together enough to eventually land Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown, the first major steps to resurrecting the Texas running game. Or Major Applewhite did at least.
Even bigger steps than the ultimately failed attempts to change direction offensively. Applewhite deserves a lot of the credit for securing Malcolm Brown's signature -- and that isn't from me either, that's straight from the Cibolo Steele offensive coordinator. Then Applewhite went out and landed Johnathan Gray, along with the currently suspended Daje Johnson. Oh, happy days.
Throw in Bryan Harsin and his Boise State offense, which has now probably morphed into the Texas offense after roughly 21 months of work, and the Longhorns are ready to roll into the season with a serious rushing attack for the first time since 2005.
The depth is a big part of the reason for the optimism there, but while Having so many running backs is a great problem to have, figuring out an effective rotation can be a bit of an issue that requires balancing a few different factors, according to teh Major:
Just looking at how you rotate those guys as a big picture. You look at a "one-two-three" back. Your "one" and your "three" are going to be the same guy. They're the guys that play on first and second down. Your "two" is your changeup back that comes in on third down, space situations, loose plays. So you're rotating those guys in those manners. And then you hide your tendencies. You play your "one-threes" on loose space plays. You play your "two" guy on some run downs. So you're able to hide your tendencies. That's what we're looking at. So if you were just taking a look at our backs, Joe would be our "one" and Malcolm would be our "three," or vice versa. Rotate them as you go throughout the game. And your change-of-pace back is Jeremy or Johnathan.
Even past the logistics, there's the pscyhological aspect as well. Running backs don't have the diva reputations of wide receivers -- and thank goodness for that -- but it's not easy taking a guy who has been a superstar for years and asking him to play a reduced role:
It's a situation where your tailback is a guy that's carried the ball from Pop Warner to junior high, all the way through high school. He's going to have that big ego. He's a great player, we all know it. We were always mad because they tossed it to him instead of us in peewee. But he ran all the way around everybody, and then he gets to college and he's sitting in a room with four other guys that did the same thing. So you've got to kind of balance those egos. I'll point up on the wall and say, "See that guy? He didn't start until he was a junior because that guy right there, [former RB] Priest Holmes, was a starter. So he had to wait his turn." And you've got to understand that. In the flow of the game we'll all need each other. We need to play throughout the game. And those guys get that. They understand it. And they also pay attention to the NFL. They see these NFL backs that get beat down. They get worn out and shot out of the league in three-four years. And that's not where their head is, but they understand that for us to win all of our games and for them to be the type of players they need to be, that there needs to be a rotation. There needs to be sharing.
Sharing is caring, imo.
Recruiting is as much about determining how well players can fit in your program as much as it is about physical evaluations. It sounds like the Longhorns are lucky not not only to have landed their top targets recently, but also lucky that those talented players have the perspective to blend well together without friction:
You've got to have knowledge of the game to be able to handle that type of situation. And then you've got to understand that's how it works. You've got to be a selfless player, and you've got to have knowledge of the game. Those guys, fortunately enough, are knowledgeable on how the game works, and then they're smart enough and good enough people to make it work. Thank God we don't have anybody in there that is sour and bitter and hard to deal with. That's the best part about it. They understand the game, number one. And they're all good, solid people to begin with.
If the hardest part is trying to distribute carries to a talented group without having to worry about egos getting significantly involved? Well, life is good.
Taken in whole, how does the head coach feel about the state of his football team, which will still have a run-first mentality despite the desire to be balanced, in the scheme that Brown chose, with the running backs that (thankfully) Major Applewhite chose?
So I do feel like you've got to run it good before you can be balanced. You can't just pass it good and say you're going to run it, you have got to put an emphasis on running it. And we've spent two really hard years to try to get back to being a very physical football team on both sides of the ball. And if you watched our practices now, I mean, they're knocking each other out, and it's a very physical practice, and they're staying healthy. We are getting more mentally and physically tougher, and I like that. I am going to feel better about that going into the game.