If there's one certainty about the 2012 Texas offense, it's that the team has the potential to be one of the strongest running teams in the country with the return of sophomore running backs Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown to full health, a state head coach Mack Brown has challenged them to maintain throughout the season.
On Sunday, Bergeron and Brown only received six combined carries (four for the former and two for the latter), helping jump-start the first-team offense with a combined five carries for 42 yards (Brown had one carry with the second team) and a short touchdown run by Bergeron.
Some fans were concerned that Brown had so few carries because of an injury sustained during the game, but Mack Brown said afterward that the limited snaps for both backs were an attempt to protect their health:
In a game like this you want to get work done, but those guys have been beat to death this spring. We've run them every day hard. We've been hard on them. We saw Malcolm have a long run and Joe [Bergeron] have a long run and then said, "That's enough, get out, you've done good."
With the running game looming as so important to the overall success of the offense, what was co-offensive Bryan Harsin's assessment?
I thought we did some good things on the sweep, getting outside of the perimeter. I thought there were a couple good runs inside and the backs looked like they broke some tackles. Those are things we need to see because you get to that second level and that is where those guys have to make some opportunities for themselves happen.
In addressing the first point, the two carries from DJ Monroe for 84 yards unquestionably pad those stats to the outside.
Inside, the first-team offensive line was able to create holes for Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown, with the former breaking tackles to pick up yardage, while Brown used his superior vision to find the cutback lane on one long run.
Of the three statements from Harsin, though, the most interesting is the final thought about making plays at the second level. In high school, Malcolm Brown was a terror at the second level, trucking smaller defenders or even using his balance and multiple spin moves to find the end zone in one memorable run.
During his freshman season, though, Brown's longest run was only 27 yards against Oklahoma State. In transitioning to the college game, Brown's ability to get to the second level and win those battles was my greatest concern about his game. To the extent that I quite publicly favored Brandon Williams for his better feet and higher-end speed.
After his injury-marred debut campaign in burnt orange, Brown has not yet shown himself to be a home-run threat. Or even a threat to consistently produce runs of 30 or more yards.
One of his two carries during the spring game picked up 17 yards and his combination of vision, patience, and decisiveness (that's not paradoxical, even if it may sound that way) is arguably better than Bergeron. Yet, the cloud of doubt lingers. Can Brown win those battles to turn 17-yard runs into 30-yard runs? Make those subtle moves, break tackles, set defenders up?
No such doubt surrounds Bergeron, who may have missed two holes on his four carries, but is seemingly right there with Brown in competing for the starting role and may even have an edge. Known for running over defenders, what was equally impressive from him as a freshman were the loose hips that allowed him to present the smallest possible tackling surface when sliding past defenders.
Brown talked this spring about increasing his durability with better hydration and more stretching. The latter may be especially important for maximizing his slipperiness -- if he can loosen up his hips enough to allow himself the flexibility to make those moves, he could both increase his durability by taking fewer hits and turn some of those medium-length runs into even more explosive plays. In the open field, Bergeron was better than advertised. Perhaps even better than what his high school film showed.
The sense at the moment is that Bergeron is better able to create those explosive plays. And it's not without reason -- Bergeron's longest run of the season went for 51 yards against Texas Tech, nearly twice as long as Brown's best run. The back projected as Brown's lead blocker also registered a 27-yard run against UCLA and a 35-yarder against Kansas. All in 100 fewer carries.
For the purposes of winning games, it doesn't matter especially which back is better, but in terms of the narrative arc of Brown and Bergeron, whatever doubts there were about Brown, it's still highly shocking that the argument for Bergeron is being made, features compelling evidence, and is gaining some momentum with every one of his trademark hard runs and surprising moves to make a defender look foolish.
In looking at the builds of the two backs, it's not hard to understand why Bergeron has more success. All quickness being equal, Bergeron packs 20 extra pounds of muscle on a more compact, powerful frame, while Brown is taller, still fighting towards his peak physical conditioning. His higher running style leads to a larger tackling surface, a higher center of gravity, all while not possessing the leg strength of Bergeron. Throw in Bergeron's hips, and it seems pretty obvious why he's been more successful so far. Design a running back and Bergeron closer to the ideal.
In the 2011 season, it was really just a flash from Bergeron against some two poor defensive teams before his hamstring injury late against Texas Tech, but that fact still does little to diminish his performance in the context of in-coming expectations for him -- which is really the point here.
An overachieving recruit. Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?