Each of the three returning Longhorn running backs competing for the starting job struggled in at least one of the aspects last season in which OG excelled -- scheme versatility, vision, hands, and blitz pick up. McGee and Whittaker struggled picking up blitzes. McGee and Johnson struggled catching the ball out of the backfield, with neither one a threat when split wide were the offense to go to an empty backfield.
Trailing Johnson and McGee on the depth chart, Whittaker may be forced into the role of third-down back out of sheer necessity, but his size will always limit his ability to pick up blitzes -- the main concern of the offensive coaching staff and a large enough concern within the offense that it may keep Whittaker off the field in third-down situations. He did, however, demonstrate his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, with 10 catches on the year for 51 yards -- not big plays, but catching check downs are essentially running plays in the Texas offense.
That brings us to Tre' Newton. Ah, yes, Tre' Newton. Not known for his speed, Newton nevertheless impressed coaches during bowl workouts with his ability to understand the requirements of a running back in the spread scheme, having significant experience in the Southlake Carroll spread in high school. As such, Newton understands how to pick up blitzes and is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. The question is how well Newton can run the ball. When the Longhorns accelerated their tempo in the Fiesta Bowl, it was with Chris Ogbonnaya in the game, allowing Texas to go empty if necessary, flexibility that Newton certainly allows. However, when accelerating the tempo to keep the defense from substituting, scheme versatility becomes the main criteria and it isn't clear if Newton can effectively run the ball in those situations. A true third-down back, on the other hand, will rarely be asked to run the football, making Newton a serious candidate.
Newton doesn't possess the bruising running of Cody Johnson, the speed/power combination of Vondrell McGee, or the speed of Fozzy Whittaker, but he could play the same situational role third-down role that Chris Obgonnaya was expected to fill before showing some ability as an every-down back. Newton will likely provide the most value by showing capability in picking up the blitz when opposing teams attempt to tee off on Colt McCoy, as they did often last season.
Just as 11 personnel forces defenses to make a choice between stopping the running game with three linebackers or stopping the passing game with five defensive backs, the schematically versatile Ogbonnaya, combined with the increased tempo and lack of substitutions, forced the defense to make a strategic choice as soon as the Longhorns started a drive, a strategic coach in terms of personnel that the defensive coordinator would have to live with as long as the Longhorns went no-huddle and didn't substitute.
Newton may fit into the offense by providing the same versatility as Obgonnaya when the Longhorns want to increase tempo without worrying about teams blitzing to slow them down, in fact, Newton may provide more scheme versatility than any other running back on the roster. That doesn't mean that he's a threat to win the starting job, but it does mean that he could be a situational player and contribute in a valuable role. Given his versatility, he is less likely to transfer than a player like Jeremy Hills, who doesn't have the same versatile skill set and could become a victim of the number's game at the position.
Another option, according to word emerging from the program, is that fullback Antwan Cobb could fill in as the third-down back. Cobb doesn't have much of a track record to indicate his ability to fill that role, but he did score the first touchdown of the season against Arkansas State in 2007 after catching a wheel route out of the backfield, perhaps the most important route for backs to run in the Greg Davis offense. With his background as a fullback, Cobb would seem to have the blocking ability that is crucial in third-down situations when opposing teams like to blitz and may provide the scheme versatility demanded when the Longhorns want to split him out as a receiver. Like Newton, the biggest concern for Cobb is his ability to run the ball in an accelerated tempo situation.
Ultimately, the Longhorns may not discover their third-down back until the conference season approaches. With little resistance expected even from Texas Tech, finding a solution to the issue isn't the primary concern on offense -- finding a starting running back is more important. Right now, it looks like Cobb holds the edge over Tre' Newton, but Fozzy Whittaker could become a factor in the equation if he gains enough strength during the off season to match up physically with blitzing linebackers and safeties, which seems the least likely outcome.