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Texas HC Charlie Strong wants to rely on physical running game in 2016

With two power backs on the roster, the Longhorns are set to steamroll opposing defenses this fall.

Chris Warren
Chris Warren
Texas athletics

When Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong came to Austin, "Let's Ride" became his recruiting tagline. Now it's his tagline when describing his philosophy about how often new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert should use junior running back D'Onta Foreman and sophomore Chris Warren.

"We need to turn around and hand that ball off," Strong said on Saturday. "If we need to throw it, we will throw it, but let's ride those hulking guys until we can't ride them anymore."

If that sounds like an old-school approach in a veer-and-shoot offense that represents one of the most seemingly modern attacks in college football, it's because Gilbert's Art Briles-derived scheme hails back to the days when the current Baylor head coach was running a split-back veer in tiny Hamlin, Texas in 1984 and went undefeated. Since then, the emphasis on a power running game has been a huge part of every offense he's run.

And that trickled down to Gilbert and offensive line coach/running game coordinator Matt Mattox, who was also a one-time graduate assistant under Briles after playing offensive tackle for him at Houston for one season.

When the Longhorns introduced Mattox and Gilbert last December, Mattox was unequivocal about his focus for the offense.

"The number one thing we're going to do is have a physical run game, we're going to be a downhill-type team," Mattox said.

Combined with the up-tempo attack that had early enrollee quarterback Shane Buechele running plays every 11.1 seconds in the Orange & White game, the hope for Mattox and Gilbert is that defense physically can't hang with the Longhorns by late in games.

"Being able to out-physical your opponent by the end of the fourth quarter and getting into the fourth quarter to wear people down physically and running the ball is one way that can make a defensive coordinator break down more than anything," Mattox said.

At the heart of that downhill rushing attack are two plays -- inside zone and power. Inside zone is a staple of most rushing attacks around the country, but the emphasis in college football is no longer on disguising inside and outside zone by teaching offensive linemen to take an initial lateral step on each play, but rather to fire off the ball and create displacement with the combo blocks on inside zone. As a result, it's become an extremely physical play.

The go-to play for Texas this fall in the running game, however? That will be power, the play that Mattox calls "Momma."

"I had a coach one time tell me that we're going to run a play and it's going to be called "Momma;" when all else fails and you don't know what to do, your girl breaks up with you, you go home and you call "Momma." And that's going to be power -- we're going to run it."

Indeed, the Longhorns leaned heavily on that play in Saturday's scrimmage and should be able to run it in both directions this year with junior college transfer Brandon Hodges working at left guard in replacement of Sedrick Flowers, who hasn't mobile enough to run the play effectively last season.

The physicality of the co-starters at running back for Texas this fall should make both of those plays extremely effective, especially with coverage players so isolated from the defensive front by the wide spacing of the receivers outside the hash marks in the veer-and-shoot offense.

Defenses will have some opportunity to dictate whether the running backs get the ball on run-pass options by giving the quarterback pass reads in those situations, but part of the beauty of the offense is that it works to consistently make the defense wrong by exploiting whatever parts of the defense opposing coordinators opt to leave vulnerable in their deployment of resources stretched thin by the scheme.

If defenses want to avoid the running game, good luck stopping junior wide receiver Armanti Foreman up the seam or tackling 6'6 early enrollee Collin Johnson on the outside on screen passes once he lowers his shoulder into a much smaller defensive back.

In Gilbert's offense, part of the emphasis on the downhill running game is in order to take pressure off of the quarterback, which may be extremely important if Buechele ends up starting this year as a true freshman. As mentioned above, another part of the emphasis grows somewhat organically from the design of the offense. And part of it is a result of Gilbert wanting to take advantage of his personnel.

"They are both big and physical," Gilbert said of Foreman and Warren. "It brings an aspect to your running game that a lot of people don't have. We are very fortunate with those two guys. We are obviously going to be utilizing them on our offense, and just being a part of the process of trying to win every Saturday."

The increase in tempo will afford both more carries this season, but even if the offense was slower-paced and fewer carries available, it's likely that Foreman and Warren would get along anyway, according to Strong.

"What is great about both those guys, is at practice, meetings, they are working together," Strong said. "Sometimes guys get their feelings hurt. Some guys get up an ego. There is no ego in either one of those guys. And it has been fun."

After both players battled through nagging injuries last year -- Warren an ankle sprain that limited him through the first half of the season and Foreman a dislocated pinky that kept him out of the season finale in Waco -- they understand that spreading that burden around will only make them better.

They also understand that the path towards growth is by remaining dedicated to improvement, as Warren clearly was in the offseason by hitting the weight room with a vengeance and putting on a great deal of muscle mass.

"I feel like if we keep working, the sky is the limit for us two," Foreman said.

Sophomore defensive back John Bonney probably agrees.