Nothing has come particularly easily for Texas Longhorns running back Joe Bergeron during his junior season, even as he has remained free from injuries for the first time in his career.
Now, that's the nature of things in a crowded backfield that featured two former five-star running backs in Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown and an offensive weapon in Daje Johnson the coaches handed the ball to on the first play of the first two games.
And some of it was self-inflicted as well, with rumors of Bergeron finding himself in the doghouse because a run-in with coaches, a supposition certainly supported by the fact that he only carried the ball 11 times after the three games after the opener.
That positive start against New Mexico with a 21-yard run gave way to three poor performances in the next three games in which he averaged less than two yards per carry, as his penchant for bouncing runs outside -- always an issue even in his heavier days -- appeared exacerbated by the fact that he dropped somewhere around 20 pounds during the offseason.
Aided by the emergence of Gray as the clear starter, Bergeron found himself buried in the running back rotation, behind Brown as well, who was later revealed to have been suffering from an ankle injury.
Then, as if whatever was happening behind the scenes wasn't enough, the Mesquite product fumbled early in the fourth quarter in what was looking like a resurgent performance against Iowa State that included a 12-yard catch and an 11-yard run.
And the next week, just as there were calls in this space for him to receive more playing time against Oklahoma because of his tackle-breaking ability, the 6'1, 230-pounder coughed up the ball again on his first carry in the Cotton Bowl, just as the Longhorns were driving to take the lead in the first quarter.
He didn't receive another opportunity until late in the TCU game when the coaches decided to burn the redshirt of freshman quarterback Tyrone Swoopes and Begeron was his backfield mate for the final moments of that victory.
Head coach Mack Brown chose to make the experience about life lessons when discussing Bergeron before the Oklahoma State game.
"The message to all of us, and especially young players out there, is Joe was taken out of the running back mix partly because the other two were doing really well and probably more importantly because he fumbled a couple of times in key situations for us," said Brown.
"What he did is instead of pouting and threatening to transfer and quit, which a lot of young men would do, he said, 'I want to be on every special teams' and he ended up being the special teams player of the week a couple of times. He has made great plays and he got the coaches' attention by going back and doing the things that he needed to do to get back in the running back spot."
In fact, Bergeron made a tackle in each of the TCU, Kansas, and West Virginia games, putting himself around the ball in kickoff coverage in a way that few other players have done all season on a struggling unit. By comparison, fullback Chet Moss has been on kickoff coverage all season and has only three tackles total, none in the last six games, and fellow fullback Alex De La Torre has registered only one since making two tackles against New Mexico State in the opener.
The effort was something that stood out to teammates as well, including Espinosa.
"What excites me about knowing Joe is coming back is seeing what he did maybe in those, quote-unquote, doghouse days maybe is knowing how hard he was going downfield on special teams and how positive he was still being and how hard he was running in practice or whatever he was doing, he was doing it full speed," said the starting center.
Gray echoed those sentiments.
"Just in practice, Joe never lost a step in practice, and he was just waiting his time and waiting his time out and got his chance and got in the end zone," Gray said after his injury. "We all knew Joe had the ability to step forward and be one of the best players on our team. He's doing great for us on special teams and now as a running back. The sky's the limit for him."
The season-ending injury for Gray against West Virginia provided Bergeron his opportunity, one that the coaches would no longer begrudge him because of his effort on special teams and in practice.
"When Johnathan (Gray) goes down, there's no question you put him in and then he goes in and not only plays well but scores a touchdown for us," said the Texas head coach. "He could have pouted when we said, 'Joe, we need you; come on in.' He could have said, 'yeah, you haven't needed me for the last three weeks,' which some kids would have done. He's matured a lot and I'm really proud of him."
An early catch that went for 14 yards broke the streak of 29 consecutive drives the Cowboys defense had ended when offenses faced a 3rd and 7 or longer on a play Brown said was put in that week specifically for Oklahoma State.
More than anything else, it showed just how valuable Bergeron can be with his ability to run through defenders when he isn't trying to run around them, still a serious concern moving forward in terms of his usage. However, that ability to not just pick up yards after contact, as Malcolm Brown has been doing well as he's gotten low and behind his pads consistently, but to shed tacklers to allow the possibility of the explosive type of runs that the Horns have been struggling to find in recent weeks.
In the second quarter, the long touchdown drive that pulled Texas to within 14-10 was a slogging, 10-play effort that started with four runs from Bergeron, a stretch that included the longest run on the day for the Longhorns. On the first three, the ability to avoid bouncing runs outside, to get behind his pads, and to create the same yards after contact as Brown has been all stood out as major positives for Bergeron.
Then he finally broke one.
It's the counter trey play Texas hasn't shown much of his this season, but it was highly successful, as pulling the pulling center Espinosa connects on his block, Trey Hopkins does a nice job of getting to the second level, and Kennedy Estelle executes the most difficult block of all against the defensive end -- the Texas offensive line overall had a good day against Oklahoma State and did not contribute significantly to the loss.
Granted, Bergeron doesn't have to do much on the play except get north-south quickly as a result of the blocking, but he does step through an arm tackle and finishes the run with violence, exactly what the coaching staff wants from him.
He also has the two longest runs of any of the three main Texas running backs -- his 54-harder against Wyoming last year before he suffered a shoulder injury that reduced his effectiveness for much of the season, and the 51-harder against Texas Tech in 2011.
Actually, that run against the Red Raiders was one of his easier efforts during that two-game stretch in which he gained 327 yards running through opponents. While neither one of those defenses were good in any sense of the word, Bergeron's toughness, solid explosiveness, and ability to slide-cut through defenses by making his hips narrow provided glimpses of the ability that he just hasn't shown as often in the last two years.
Joe Bergeron Texas Highlights 2011 (via LonghornGuy247) (Language warning)
The job that Brown has done this season is certainly commendable -- it's been said before and is worth saying again that he's running as hard as he ever has in his career at Texas.
The difference is that Bergeron ultimately has more upside because he has proven that he can create more explosive plays and that he can break more tackles.
Finally out of the doghouse because of his efforts in practice and on special teams and as healthy as he's ever been at this point in the season, it's worth seeing what Bergeron can do after he keyed the only touchdown drive the entire game against the Cowboys.