Five games into the season, the two Texas Longhorns running backs with the highest average yards per carry are the freshmen — Toneil Carter and Daniel Young.
As sophomore Kyle Porter struggles to break tackles on his way to an average of less than three yards per carry and head coach Tom Herman publicly criticizes junior Chris Warren III for his inconsistent ability to fall forward and pick up extra yardage, it may be time for the youth movement.
The problem, as Herman pointed out on Thursday, is that it’s difficult to play four running backs.
Still, it sounds like the freshmen have earned the opportunity after experiencing some growing pains during preseason camp. Young, for instance, was pulled out of warm ups at one point, while Carter had difficulty with his ball security and consistently knowing his aiming points on runs.
“Toneil [Carter] will continue to see the field more and more,” Herman said. “We've talked about playing him more than just on a play-by-play basis but just throwing him in there for an entire series and letting him go.”
Other than some extended playing time late during the blowout of San Jose State, Carter has largely been a package player — coming onto the field for a play or two and then coming out.
That was the case last week against Kansas State when he had six carries for 32 yards, all of them coming in the first half. His play provided more credence to the argument that the best way to deal with the struggling offensive line is to run read option plays that allow Carter to get on the perimeter and use his speed.
Paired with the threat of freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger up the middle, it’s probably the most consistent running play that the ‘Horns can utilize at this point.
Carter could also be an effective weapon against the Oklahoma pass defense — the Sooners have stubbornly stuck with a 3-4 base defense and Carter’s receiving ability makes him an ideal target matched up against a slower linebacker. After all, he produced a touchdown on just such a play against Iowa State.
As the offensive identity begins to coalesce for Texas, all the available evidence suggest that if the staff can trust Carter, the team is better when he has the football in his hands.
Young was a dark-horse candidate to become an important member of the 2017 recruiting class after flipping from Houston late in the process — his high school transition to the position gave him upside, while his natural instincts and tough running style hinted at the player he could become in college.
Like Carter, he saw playing time late against the Spartans and took advantage, picking up 27 yards on four carries.
“We're pulling our hair out to try to get (Daniel) Young some playing time because he's practiced so well,” Herman said on Monday.
If Porter and Warren struggle, then Young could play for a series, according to Herman, as he’s done everything the staff has asked him in practice, a key indicator that he’s earned a greater degree of trust from his coaches than he had weeks ago.
As long as Carter and Young can protect the football and avoid major mistakes, the worst-case scenario isn’t altogether dissimilar from what the older backs have done game after game.
It can be easy to overthink these things, but the bottom line is that if the two freshmen have practiced well enough that the coaches are talking about ways to get them the football, it’s not difficult to put them in the game and hand it to them.