It’s been a while since the word "elite" has been mentioned regarding the Texas Longhorns football program. Whether it has been position groups or individual players, the scarcity of the word around the Longhorns in recent memory raises alarm, but that will change this season with the running back corps.
In Charlie Strong’s first two seasons at Texas, the Big 12 has only named one Longhorn to first team all-conference -- defensive tackle Malcom Brown-- who also earned All-American honors. This does not imply Charlie Strong’s failure as a coach, but suggests he simply hasn’t worked with enough elite talent on campus. However, Strong's backs will rank among the best in the Big 12 in 2016.
Believe it or not, the pass-happy Big 12 fields some incredibly talented backfields -- take a look at Baylor, which stormed to 1,040 yards on the ground in their final two games of 2015, or Oklahoma, which arguably houses the best backfield in the country with its duo of Semaje Perine and Joe Mixon.
Even Iowa State’s Mike Warren ranked fourth in the conference last season by rushing for 1,339 yards. In fact, the Big 12 probably challenges the glorious, almighty SEC as the conference with the best running back talent. That’s why it’s so impressive the Texas group ranks among the best.
The explosive tandem of Chris Warren and D’Onta Foreman -- now known as the Smash Brothers -- headline a sensational group under new running backs coach Anthony Johnson. Both Foreman and Warren excelled last season, bulldozing through defenses with their blend of size and speed. The duo will most likely split carries in 2016, challenging undersized Big 12 linebackers.
In addition to Warren and Foreman, the Longhorns return sophomore Kirk Johnson, redshirt freshman Tristan Houston, and junior Roderick Bernard who will combine to provide a nice change of pace to the heavy hitting combo of Warren and Foreman, not to mention four-star signee Kyle Porter, a 2016 US Army All-American. Bottom line -- the Longhorns will field a formidable backfield, which seems to have a little bit of everything: size, power, elusiveness, agility, and speed.
1A: D'Onta Foreman, Jr, 2L
1B: Chris Warren III, So., 1L
Kirk Johnson, So., 1L
Roderick Bernard, Jr., 2L
Kyle Porter, Fr., HS
Tristan Houston, Fr., RS
In the "thunder and more thunder" duo of Foreman and Warren, neither really stands above the other. However, with Foreman returning as the leading rusher from 2015 and starting the Orange and White game, I listed him at the slightly more prestigious "1A" running back slot on the depth chart.
A consensus three-star prospect out of high school, D'Onta was thought to be the less-talented of the dynamic Foreman brothers. Three years later, the tables have certainly turned. D'Onta comes into his junior season as one of the premier running backs in the conference with a chance to solidify himself on NFL draft boards. Standing at 6'0, 238 pounds, Foreman epitomizes the role of a heavy-hitting, bruiser back. Time and time again he proved that in 2015, running over weak defensive backs or stepping out of one-arm tacklers. If you want to tackle him, be prepared to bring both feet and a head full of steam. His strength alone makes Foreman incredibly difficult to stop.
What's more surprising about Foreman's ability is his elite breakaway quickness. Exemplified by his runs of 81 yards and 93 yards against Oklahoma and Kansas, respectively (both found in the video below), Foreman possesses incredible speed for a runner of his size -- that's what makes Foreman incredibly hard to tackle.
In addition to being able to power through weak tacklers, Foreman can out run almost anyone on the defensive side of the ball. For a man of his size, he's incredibly agile and can escape in a moment's notice. His mixture of size and speed makes Foreman an elite back in my opinion, and a player who could easily soar up NFL draft boards with an excellent junior season.
Along with Foreman, the Longhorns have another running back with equal NFL capabilities. Chris Warren III, son of Seahawks All-Pro Chris Warren, showed impressive running ability in limited action toward the end of the 2015 campaign.
In the final two games of the season, Warren stampeded to 382 yards, including a single-game Texas freshman rushing record of 276 yards against rival Texas Tech on Thanksgiving. Yes, that Texas Tech defense had more holes in it than a slice of Swiss cheese, but Warren displayed elite talent nonetheless. Like Foreman, Warren is very difficult to tackle because of his tremendous size and equally gifted speed.
Shown on multiple occasions last season, tacklers consistently will bounce off Warren because of his strong frame. Whether it's him stiff-arming feeble defensive backs or running through linebackers, Warren matches defensive players pound for pound.
Former Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman remarked that Warren was the "toughest" player he faced in 2015. Although Warren is reported to have a 40-yard dash time of only 4.62, he surprises some people with his in-game speed. Because of his long strides, Warren can out run most defenders once he passes the second level.
Warren came into the spring listed at a staggering 6'2 and 255 pounds, which alarmed some fans that it may be bad weight. During the spring, however, Warren looked just as fast and even stronger than he did in 2015, which should be frightening to Big 12 defenses.
Along with Foreman and Warren, Texas will also turn to sophomore Kirk Johnson to help carry the load for the Texas running game. Johnson saw limited time in 2015 and his season ended during the Texas Tech game after sustaining an injury.
In limited action, however, Johnson showed some nice abilities and will be a great compliment to the bruising combo of Foreman and Warren. A quick back, Johnson doesn't have the size of Foreman and Warren, but can beat defenses with outstanding quickness and speed. He's an explosive athlete and will get a chance to make an impact in 2016.
Johnson missed the Orange and White game with an injury, but will get the first look in fall practices to back up the Warren/Foreman duo. In a recent workout video, he appeared ready to play if the season started this Sunday instead of 15 weeks from now.
Running backs coach Anthony Johnson will also look at junior Roderick 'Hot Rod' Bernard to play a role in the loaded backfield. Similar to former Longhorns Daje Johnson and DJ Monroe, Bernard doesn't necessarily have refined running back skills, but is extremely explosive with the ball in his hands.
One of the fastest players on the team, Bernard self-reported a 4.2 second 40 yard dash time out of high school. Because he's a less refined back, it's hard to envision Bernard receiving meaningful touches out of the backfield at a loaded position. However, Sterlin Gilbert needs to find a way to get the ball in Bernard's hands because he can change the game with a single play. Bernard will also get an opportunity to return kicks on special teams.
Another back in the mix is freshman Tristan Houston. Houston's best use in the offense is when he has the ball on the edge with blockers in front because of his patience and good vision. He doesn't have the same kind of elite speed that Bernard has or the refined skills of the top backs, so he may be the odd man out. Houston did receive considerable time in the spring game at running back, but Kirk Johnson was injured and incoming freshman Kyle Porter had not enrolled. While Houston may not receive much time this year, he'll factor in the mix in the near future.
Speaking of Kyle Porter, the consensus four-star product out of Katy comes to Texas with big ambitions in 2016. The lone running back commit in the 2016 recruiting class for Texas, Porter will have an opportunity to immediately come in and make a dent in a loaded Longhorns backfield.
In his senior year, Porter rushed for 1,938 yards and 36 touchdowns, leading Katy to a perfect season and a state championship. Porter is a mature prospect with refined skills for a running back so young. On top of great speed and agility, Porter has great vision and outstanding hands out of the backfield.
With Porter's arrival on campus, Texas secures a young player who plays well beyond his years and is ready to play if called upon. Although with such a deep backfield, Texas may not give many carries to Porter this season. In fact, I could easily envision a situation in which he redshirts. I'm a big fan of Porter and believe he's on his way to great things at Texas, but it may just not be in 2016.
For the first time since Charlie Strong took over, Texas fields a position group that ranks with some of the best in the conference. Perhaps the best aspect of this backfield for Texas is that it will alleviate pressure placed on the quarterback to make plays. If the Longhorns backfield reaches its potential, this group will leave an impression on the national landscape.