ARLINGTON, Texas — Of all the developments for the Texas Longhorns on offense since the Sugar Bowl, perhaps none of them are as impressive and as important to the program’s success as the emergence of freshman running back Jordan Whittington.
When Whittington committed to Texas in March of 2018, the question was whether he would play wide receiver or safety for the Longhorns. But that all changed when Whittington set a UIL state record by rushing for 334 yards in defeating Texarkana Pleasant Grove. Even though Whittington was also the Defensive MVP of the game, it was his offensive performance at AT&T Stadium that helped change the trajectory of his career.
Running backs coach Stan Drayton took notice.
“That was a ridiculous game,” Drayton said recently. “That was unbelievable just watching that kid — I was impressed with the endurance alone.”
When he arrived on campus several weeks later, he made the move to running back as the Texas depth chart took hits from three transfers. The question was how quickly he could acclimate to a position he had never really played in his life — at Cuero, he took direct snaps in Wildcat formations, but the skill set required of running backs is quite different than that required of someone taking direct snaps, particularly in pass protection.
When spring practice started, Whittington quickly made an impression, and not just because his 215-pound frame was already preternaturally developed for someone who should have still been in high school. No, Whittington made such a strong impression because of how quickly he acclimated to his new position.
“For him to look and feel that comfortable back there through eight or nine practices having played that position...” head coach Tom Herman said. “And he grinds, he’s a worker in the film room, he’s a worker in meetings. He likes ball.”
When Big 12 Media Days arrived in July, Herman was even more effusive in his praise for the freshman running back.
“The emergence of Jordan Whittington has been remarkable. I’ve never seen in my 22 years of coaching a young man having never played a certain position — even in high school — to come in and say, ‘Hey, kid, you’re going to play tailback for us’ and say ‘Yes, sir,’ and take to it like a fish to water,” Herman said. “He’s a natural at it. We’re really excited about him as well.”
What makes Whittington so special, according to Herman, is that he has a smooth running style with instant acceleration and the ability to make cuts without any wasted movement. Ehlinger thinks that Whittington has all the athletic traits necessary to register as a freakish athlete, as does freshman wide receiver Jake Smith.
“Both of those guys, as you mentioned, Jake Smith and Jordan Whittington — freakish athletes,” junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger said at Big 12 Media Days. “Definitely pass the eye test when they’re running around, moving around, just the takeoff speed, the explosiveness, the elusiveness, the quickness, it’s all there.”
However, as the saying goes, hard work beats talent that doesn’t work hard. Whittington works hard, too, and also has the ability to quickly retain information. So he’s not just working hard, he’s working smart, as Ehlinger revealed in Arlington.
“One thing that’s really jumped out to me about both of those guys and being in the film room with them this summer is that they’re really intelligent,” Ehlinger said. “They pick up on things really quickly.”
Ehlinger cited one moment from the summer that stood out to him.
“I was in the film room with J-Whitt trying to go over protections with him and I didn’t really know how much he knew because he meets with whoever he meets with, but he knew pretty much everything. I was like, ‘Wow, let’s just turn on some film and go over a game plan or something like that.’ He had been here in the spring, but the way that he soaked up information... And it’s not elementary level stuff — it was pretty difficult information that he had retained in a short period of time.”
That’s not a new trait for Whittington, either, as his high school coach told Dave Campbell’s Texas Football that Whittington started at safety as a freshman because he could make all the coverage calls in the secondary. Whittington also joined the coaches at the Cuero football facility to watch film on the weekends because he valued learning how to break it all down.
All that work is now set to pay off for the Longhorns in a month when Texas takes the field against Louisiana Tech. When Whittington sees his first game snaps in burnt orange and white, he’ll almost certainly do so as the second-string running back, but he’ll likely have a big role in the offensive game plan because of his explosiveness and ability to split out wide to create mismatches against linebackers or safeties in the passing game.
After Whittington takes the field, it surely won’t be long before he makes a big play, whether it’s with the ball in his hands or simply picking up a critical blitzer to allow Ehlinger time to deliver a pass downfield.
During the spring, sophomore running back Keaontay Ingram had perhaps the most succinct description of Whittington.
“Jordan, he’s going to be the real deal in the future.”
And that future is approaching rapidly.