What does the future look like for junior running back Chris Warren III with the Texas Longhorns?
Head coach Tom Herman doesn’t know.
Once considered the leading candidate to become the team’s primary back replacing departed Doak Walker Award winner D’Onta Foreman, Warren has struggled this season running the football, ultimately emerging as a pass catcher and a blocker.
“I know Chris is very good catching the ball out of the backfield and I know Chris is definitely a very good pass protector, as well,” Herman said on Monday.
Warren is still the leading rusher on the team with 313 yards and five touchdowns, but his role has largely diminished since the first game of conference play, with the Oklahoma State game standing as a notable exception.
In that game, Warren carried the ball 12 times for 33 yards before receiving only three carries combined over the last two games as the freshmen running backs have seemingly taken control of the position.
Over the last five games and 28 carries, Warren is only averaging 2.0 yards per attempt. He’s scored three touchdowns this season when teammates pushed him into the end zone.
So despite his size, he hasn’t emerged as a viable short-yardage running back because he struggled to gain enough momentum to break tackles and move the pile — he needs several steps to reach top speed and has problems playing with low pad level because of his height.
In the passing game, however, Warren has been a valuable asset out of the backfield, averaging 11.9 yards per reception and gaining 190 yards on 16 catches. Against Oklahoma, he had four catches for 55 yards, both career highs.
Still not considered the best receiver among the running backs, Warren has nevertheless carved out a role in the Longhorns offense, becoming a favored target on fourth downs in particular.
And other than an embarrassing play against Oklahoma State, he’s largely been functional as a blocker, as he was last season when he served as an important asset in the 18-Wheeler package early in the season. Once he went down with an injury, Tyrone Swoopes was never able to match the success he found when Warren was leading the way.
Herman wasn’t willing to predict the future for Warren, indicating that he’ll continue to receive opportunities in practice, but it may be about time to admit that Warren is no longer most valuable to the team as a running back.
In the past, Texas has had to make similar decisions with the last two big running backs it recruited, Henry Melton and Chris Whaley. Both players ultimately became successful defensive linemen for Texas and Melton was a fourth-round draft pick who played seven seasons in the NFL, producing 22.5 sacks in his career.
While Warren played some defensive end in high school and showed potential at the position, his best fit for the ‘Horns may be at H-back, where he could provide a receiving threat and take advantage of his blocking ability. At 6’4 and 250 pounds, he has the height and mass to even become an in-line tight end if he shows an aptitude for the position.
Getting passed by younger players on the depth chart is never a good sign, but Warren still has an opportunity to contribute to the Longhorns program. It may just have to happen in a different role than previously envisioned.