On paper, the Texas Longhorns have the most talented running back corps in the Big 12. But in reality, the group continues to face serious questions about whether that talent can turn into healthy production during the season.
To that end, junior running back Joe Bergeron has dropped weight this season. He's still listed at 230 pounds, his official weight from last season, but those who have seen him in person have remarked that he looks thinner and he said Thursday that he is down to 225 from 245.
Bergeron detailed his thinking and work habits after the fourth fall practice:
I have been good with maintaining my weight because I was a power lifter in high school; I have to increase and decrease. Over the summer, I worked out hard. I kept running, lifted more weights; I got stronger and worked on more footwork. We have all improved. I just decided I needed to do it more with looking at the new up-tempo offense. With me being a bigger back, I understand that I have to keep that role. Keeping that as well as dropping weight would help the team.
So instead of allowing himself to grow into a true fullback, Bergeron has been hard at work trying to maximize his speed and feet to find more of those big plays that he broke off during his freshman season against Texas Tech and in the opener last season against Wyoming, but escaped him as his sophomore season went along and he was mostly reduced to a short-yardage role.
How did Bergeron manage to drop weight besides working out hard? Well, it appears that the Texas nutrition program hadn't quite broken him of some old habits, specifically eating sweets and drinking soda. The big, bruising back was apparently a huge fan of oatmeal creme pies, but understood the stakes at hand:
I have to make sacrifices. I would give up eating sweets if that means we will win one more or two more games or go undefeated.
Limited by a shoulder injury last season, Bergeron's conditioning level may not protect him from nagging injuries, but carrying less weight should help -- from the reports and what he said, he's taken the necessary steps to remain on the field this season.
As for his classmate, Malcolm Brown, the focus during Thursday's media availability was more about how he experienced his injuries rather than what he has been doing to overcome them in the future. Brown acknowledged his frustration after his high ankle sprain against Oklahoma State derailed most of his season after that point, but said the injury was out of his control.
Perhaps more than Bergeron, Brown faces questions about his ability to play through pain this season. While high ankle sprains have a reputation for hanging around and if a player doesn't have explosiveness, they simply don't have explosiveness, but there have been some comments around the margins that Brown doesn't have the necessary toughness to perform at less than peak fitness.
The injury histories of those two players place a lot on sophomore running back Johnathan Gray, who should benefit from the changes in the offense more than the other two backs. The best of the three as a receiver out of the backfield, Gray said that he thinks he will get the ball more in the passing game. And, in fact, swing passes have been a major emphasis through the first part of practice, particularly on the run/pass read play that sends one running back out in motion into the flat, while the quarterback reads the numbers in the box and makes the throw outside if the numbers dictate, a play that looks set to become a staple of the offense.
There's also the possibility that all three backs could see the field at the same time in a Diamond formation, possibly with redshirt freshman quarterback/running back Jalen Overstreet as the trigger man. At the least, the work from the open practices during the spring and the spring game suggest that new play caller Major Applewhite will use two-back sets at times to get his talented running back corps on the field.
So even though Bergeron hasn't grown into a fullback, he'll probably be asked to perform some fullback duties as part of the new offense, which will demand greater versatility from all of the running backs. There were some looks during the spring that asked Gray to execute some lead blocks, but that doesn't seem like a very high-percentage move from Applewhite, as much as the Aledo product is certainly willing to do whatever it takes to win.
Speaking of which, the public rhetoric from the players about sharing carries hit all the right notes. Gray has known since the beginning that he wanted to play with other talented backs to reduce his workload, but Brown and Bergeron both used the word "selfless" to describe their position grouping and the team in general.
With a singular focus on the bottom line of winning, the running back corps will be a vital part of whatever success the Longhorns achieve this season. And they have plenty to prove, too.