As it stands now, Texas appears to have four running backs who could all contribute this season. Once thought to be another possible option for snaps in 2019, true freshman Derrian Brown suffered a stroke earlier this year and is focused on his road to recovery first and foremost.
Senior: Kirk Johnson (redshirt)
Junior: Daniel Young
Sophomore: Keaontay Ingram
Freshmen: Jordan Whittington, Derrian Brown (out until further notice)
Before looking at how the position’s depth may shake out, it’s worth noting that to this point in the offseason, the Longhorns have seen three other running backs depart the program to pursue other opportunities. Redshirt junior Kyle Porter, redshirt senior Tristian Houston, and redshirt sophomore Toneil Carter all decided to enter the transfer portal once the 2018 season concluded.
None were expected to start, though losing all three in one offseason creates some degree of concern with depth at the position. And the loss of depth was one reason why newcomer Jordan Whittington was switched from wide receiver to running back not long after he enrolled for spring workouts.
Whittington is expected to be heavily involved in the Texas offense this season, but it’s sophomore Keaontay Ingram who will start the year atop the depth chart.
Playing in 13 games last season as a true freshman, including two starts, Ingram rushed 142 times for 708 yards, good for nearly five yards per carry. Ingram totaled three rushing touchdowns and added 27 receptions for 170 yards and two receiving touchdowns as well.
A goal for Ingram should be to improve on his strong per-carry average, though even maintaining that average with an expected increase in carries would mean Ingram ends the season as one of the better running backs in the conference.
After averaging about 11 carries per game last season, Ingram could see an average of 15 or more carries in 2019 as the Texas staff was diligent to monitor his workload his freshman season.
If Ingram is 1-A, the expectation is that Jordan Whittington will be 1-B. The highly-touted freshman brings athleticism for days to the Forty Acres after crushing the stat book last season on the road to a state title for Cuero. As a senior, Whittington racked up 14 rushing touchdowns and 846 yards on the ground on just 59 attempts, resulting in a 14.3 yards-per-carry average. He also added 948 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns.
The do-it-all athlete is expected to make an impact throughout the 2019 season, allowing the Longhorns to form a dynamic duo atop the depth chart at running back.
As with each season, it’s not unusual for a football team to find itself in a situation where it needs to turn to a third or fourth option on the depth chart given the wear and tear running backs take toting the rock. For 2019, the Longhorns are currently looking to junior Daniel Young and senior Kirk Johnson to fill those extra carries.
Of the two, Young has received the most playing time out of the backfield. The third-year back has played in 27 games, starting five of them, rushing a total of 123 times for 526 yards and three touchdowns.
For Young, the goal for 2019 will be to bounce back and work his way into the rotation as reliable and consistent depth. From his freshman to sophomore seasons, Young saw his attempts get cut in half from 81 in 2017 to 42 in 2018. And after seeing 31 carries in the first four games of 2018, Young totaled just 11 the rest of the way in part to Tre Watson’s and Keaontay Ingram’s 1-2 punch at running back.
Young may not see a huge uptick in carries, but contributing in short stretches or possibly even to close some games Texas leads could be the type of role Young is in store for barring any major time missed by Ingram or Whittington.
Ideally, Young will also produce in short-yardage situations where his 6’0, 230-pound frame and strong running style could be utilized to provide Texas with another option when it needs tough yards. Of course, quarterback Sam Ehlinger and his bruising running style will return in 2019 as well.
Along with Young, fifth-year senior Kirk Johnson, the older brother of fourth-year senior wide out Collin Johnson, appears to finally be ready to get some snaps at running back since rushing just eight times for 44 yards his freshman season in 2015.
Injuries have kept Johnson from contributing on offense since 2015. Last season, he took a big step forward by playing in 10 games on special teams for the Longhorns.
If he can maintain his health, Johnson could also provide an added spark to the Longhorns offense. Another healthy season would be welcomed, and at the very least, he could be in play for a role in the return game on special teams.
Last season, Texas saw its three top running backs have 185 rushing attempts (Watson), 164 rushing attempts (Ehlinger), and 142 rushing attempts (Ingram). The next closest was Daniel Young with 42 attempts.
Sub out Watson for Whittington and shuffle the order a bit, and Texas could look at 2018 as a blueprint for how it wants to spread out the touches in 2019. The key term is “touches” because the Longhorns should be creative with how it gets the ball to Whittington, and even Ingram, this season.
The concern for running backs in 2019 will be depth and to some extent inexperience. All signs point to Texas relying on a sophomore and true freshman to form the 1-2 punch in 2019. And if either of those two miss extended time, the running back position could be uncomfortably thin or limited.
Should everything go to plan, the running game for Texas (with help from quarterback Sam Ehlinger) could be one of the most effective in the Big 12 Conference come December.