DJ Monroe almost didn't make it this far at Texas. Those on the outside of the program will never know if the rumors about a 0.0 GPA in his first fall semester in Austin were true, but there's little doubt that he was on his way out the door when the spring semester arrived in 2009. To make sure that he got his work done in the classroom, the Texas coaches held him out of spring practice, costing him precious repetitions and slowing his growth.
Just a matter of months later, Monroe made an indelible mark on the psyche of those fans following the program. A little over 10 minutes remained in the second quarter of the opening game against Louisiana-Monroe -- not exactly the type of school against whom many legends are born -- Monroe received the kickoff after a long WarHawk touchdown and 10 seconds later found himself in the opposing end zone the first time he touched the football in a Texas uniform.
Texas Longhorn D J Monroe debuts with an 89 Yard Kick-Off Return for a Touchdown! (via DBDVTV)
For Texas fans, it was a promise. A promise of electricity in the air whenever he found the football in his hands. A promise of paydirt given the slightest crease and that briefest instant to reach top speed.
In return, 'Horns fans both in the stadium and on their couches at home found their quad muscles tightening in anticipation every time an opposing team kicked in his direction or he found the field offensively to start in motion across the formation. Ready to jump to their feet, screaming some variation of "Go DJ, go!" Remembering the promise of that first touch.
It didn't take long for Monroe to once again fulfill that promise -- against UTEP on September 26, he returned a kickoff 91 yards to become the first Longhorn in the proud history of the program to return two kickoffs for touchdowns on only his sixth attempt.
The following months marked more setbacks for Monroe -- a DWI charge after the Baylor game and a hamstring injury that kept him out of spring practice, further limiting his development. His poor hands kept him buried on the wide receiver depth chart, resulting in no offensive touches through the first two games.
Excuses rained down from the coaching staff, everything from the aforementioned poor hands, the defense keying on his entrance into the game, his lack of repetitions when finally moved to running back, concerns about his durability, and concerns about his ability to pick up the blitz.
All this despite his proven ability to change games with the football in his hands. Despite a noticeable lack of offensive playmakers.
The UCLA game afforded an opportunity after injuries to the three Texas running backs and Monroe took advantage, picking up 51 yards on six carries. The following week, he took a carry against Oklahoma 60 yards for a touchdown to help stem the momentum that turned against the 'Horns after 14 straight Sooner points to open the game. Then, nothing in the second half as the Longhorns fell behind.
And more excuses from the coaching staff.
Still, Monroe took the high road about his playing time in a media availability the next week:
It really doesn't matter. We did what we had to do. They played who they want to play. It's as simple as that.
The negative people, they can stay on the other side of us because we don't care.
He also admitted his lack of knowledge of the playbook after his move to running back during the season and expressing optimism towards the future:
I don't know the whole playbook The plays that I can run, I do it to the best of my ability. The plays I can't run, I come and sit on the sideline. That's how it is.
As soon as I learn the playbook, things will start opening up for me, and that won't be a problem. I'm not worried about what's going on right now.
I'm trying to learn the package and keep my brothers strong, so we can finish the season off strong.
As tempting as it was to buy into the hype surrounding the transformation of Cody Johnson's body or the potential of Fozzy Whittaker given a run of good health, everyone inside and outside the program knew that the running back position lacked a playmaker.
So even though a pre-season study revealed that Monroe was one of several proven playmakers offensively, the coaching staff never made the decision to switch him to his natural position of running back during fall practice.
Monroe himself shed light on why he struggled at the unfamiliar position of receiver:
I really don't have too much to say at receiver. When they said they were going to move me there, I tried. I really tried. I put forth all my effort and tried to learn all the plays.
I'd never really played receiver in high school. It was running back and quarterback and safety. I've been taught to go toward the contact
I feel more comfortable when I start out with the ball in my hands. I don't know why. Receiver just didn't feel right.
Instead of making the obvious move to get him on the field, the coaching staff allowed him to languish at receiver through fall practice, getting few reps with the incoming freshman and the depth in front of him. It took those aforementioned injuries for the staff to finally make the obvious switch, which paid major dividends quickly, even if his lack of size, the defense keying on him, and his lack of knowledge of the playbook.
Despite his misuse and the instances of immaturity with his grades and the poor decision to drink and drive after a game, Monroe's attitude towards his playing time and lack of carries is nothing short of commendable. If there's selfishness holding back this football team, Monroe's comments to the media indicate that he isn't part of the problem.
And if Mack Brown and his offensive coaches really want this team to start performing better on the field, DJ Monroe having the ball in his hands close to 10 times a game will almost surely be a major part of a resurgence.