Few players on the Texas Longhorns last season were as divisive as running back Chris Warren III, the 6’2, 250-pound physical specimen who flashed at times during his first two seasons, but struggled as a junior.
Some fans saw a player with a unique combination of size and physicality and believed that the offensive coaching staff misused a player with the talent to become the feature running back the team needed after D’Onta Foreman departed early for the NFL.
The coaches saw a running back who struggled to create extra yardage behind a struggling offensive line and eventually moved him to H-back due to a lack of available bodies at the position.
After another successful preseason game with the Oakland Raiders, the undrafted rookie who unexpectedly declared for the NFL Draft after announcing his decision to transfer was once again a hot topic of conversation in the burnt orange nation.
On Saturday, for the second time in two preseason games, Warren went over 100 yards, carrying the ball 18 times for 110 yards and his first NFL touchdown.
The strong performance reignited the debate surrounding Warren from last season, with a certain father of two former players using it as yet another opportunity to trash the current coaching staff.
So what’s the truth about Warren? Is he now showing his true talent after chronic misuse last season?
As usual, the reality falls somewhere in the middle.
Based on his performances over the first two preseason games, it’s clear that Warren has improved in two key areas — he’s keeping his feet moving better on contact to fight for extra yardage and running with better pad level.
Last season, Warren struggled in the former area at times, in part because he had to deal with contact before he could reach top speed, but also because he failed to use his strength to pick up yards after contact. Simply put, there seemed to be a lack of will at times.
On three of his six touchdown runs in 2017, teammates helped push or drag him into the end zone.
No single play was more emblematic of his struggles than a play that went for no yardage against Iowa State. When the Longhorns wide receiver missed a block on Cyclones cornerback Brian Peavy, the 5’9, 190-pounder stood Warren up on the edge and then drove him back five yards. So despite the fact that Warren had roughly 60 pounds on the defender, his lack of momentum and tall frame made him a relatively easy target.
While there are indications of improvement for Warren, he’s also benefitting from the blocking of the Raiders offensive line — on many of his successful runs, he’s picking up the available yardage by running through big holes and then finishing runs better than he did in college.
Against the Lions in Warren’s first preseason game, Detroit struggled mightily containing Warren, consistently losing the edge and allowing him to use his speed to bounce outside for big gains. Warren flashed that ability at Texas, so the difference is largely one of execution by opposing defenses.
Following those two performances, Warren appears on track to make the Oakland roster if he continues to make the most of his opportunities, but he does still have areas for improvement that likely impacted his playing time at Texas last season.
“He’s a good back, isn’t he?” head coach Jon Gruden said of Warren. “I mean, he’s run for almost 200 yards in two weeks. And I know he’s not playing against the regulars but he’s not playing with the regulars either. He’s a big powerful back that’s taking care of the ball.
“He’s got to get better without the football — that’s what it’s all about with him. We know he can run, we know he’s powerful and fast and elusive, but he’s got to get a lot better without the football to be an NFL back.”
Specifically, Warren admitted that he’s still working on making the right reads on fake or delayed blitzes before leaving the backfield.
Whatever happened mentally with Warren at Texas last season, he ended up letting his academics slip to the extent that he wasn’t academically eligible to transfer, which influenced his decision to turn pro. Since there were never any indications that Warren struggled in the classroom prior to his final semester with the Longhorns, it’s reasonable to wonder whether his on-field struggles cascaded in other ways beyond the classroom.
What is without question is the fact that Warren only averaged 2.4 yards per carry after the first two games of the season. He only carried the ball four times over his last five games in burnt orange and white.
And so while it was hard to understand why Kyle Porter was playing ahead of the freshmen running backs who showed more promise, it wasn’t that hard to understand why Warren wasn’t playing. Even by the low standards of last season’s putrid running game, he simply wasn’t producing.
Some of it was probably offensive fit. Some of it was probably effort.
Now that Warren is in the NFL and receiving big holes to run through, he’s taking advantage of his opportunities by largely doing what he did at Texas, all while doing one of the things he didn’t do last season — running as if his future depends on the quality of his effort finishing runs on every carry.