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Lack of depth at RB won’t change Texas strategy against LSU

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Alignment means that the coaches have to gameplan with the same confidence they demand from the players on the field.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Longhorns offensive coordinator Tim Beck sees them in his dreams.

Asked about the vaunted LSU Tigers defense, Beck quickly rattled a short burst of superlatives.

Pretty to the point, right?

“Yeah, yeah, keep seeing them in my dreams over and over again,” Beck said. “Pretty easy to recall that.”

If the LSU defense is the stuff of nightmares, so is the Texas running back situation — sophomore Keaontay Ingram is the only healthy scholarship player who started preseason camp at the position. Backing him up now is freshman Roschon Johnson, who was recruited as a quarterback. Behind Johnson is freshman David Gbenda, who was recruited as a linebacker.

That’s because of 2019 signee Derrian Brown is out this season after suffering a stroke, senior Kirk Johnson (shoulder) and junior Daniel Young (high ankle sprain) are probably out until the end of the month, and freshman Jordan Whittington re-aggravated his sports hernia, requiring surgery. He could be out for six weeks.

Herman said he’s never had a situation like this in his career, as even walk-on running back Jarrett Smith, a player the coaches trust, is injured right now.

So one major question this week is whether Beck and head coach Tom Herman will alter the gameplan in order to protect Ingram and junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who is now one of two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. His backup, Casey Thompson, played for the first time last weekend against Louisiana Tech.

On Monday, however, Herman said the strategy won’t change.

“Not on game day. I think you’ve got to do whatever it takes to win, especially when you’re playing a top-10 team with such a good defense, like LSU,” he said. “I think in practice these guys have been wearing green jerseys, been non-contact for three weeks, four weeks, but on game day you gotta turn ‘em loose and do whatever it takes to win.”

Expect to see plenty of Ingram, then, likely in the most extended action of his career — as a freshman, he only carried the ball more than 14 times once, when he had 19 carries for 110 yards. It’s the only time he’s surpassed 100 yards in his brief career.

Texas needs him to grow up quickly, too.

“I think he was a little too excited sometimes, kind of lacked a little bit of patience on a couple of runs, kind of ran into the back of his O-Line a couple of times, and the good thing is when he squirted out of that he usually found a way to make yards and make the first guy miss,” Herman said.

Against one of the top defenses in the country, Ingram will have to strike the difficult balance of running with patience, but also recognizing that everything happens more quickly because of LSU’s talent and team speed.

“Holes aren’t open very long and guys aren’t open very long, so have to play on time at quarterback, get the ball out, and when a back sees a hole, he’s got to hit it,” Beck said.

And though the coaching staff is trying to take hits off of Ehlinger by using run-pass options more frequently, Ehlinger carried the ball most frequently in the biggest games last season — Ehlinger had 15 or more carries against USC, Texas Tech, and Georgia, as well as both Oklahoma games.

At times, he’ll hand off to Johnson, who debuted at running back with seven carries for 26 yards. On his first play, he held up well in pass protection, then flashed some strong leg drive by breaking a tackle from the first defender who tried to bring him down. The No. 6 dual-threat quarterback in the 2019 class also showed some ability to get behind his pads.

“Roschon is — I mean, I’m glad he was here this spring for the physical development as well as learning the offense, so I think it’s not near the transition that somebody like David Gbenda will be going through in terms of Roschon knew protections, at quarterback you have to know it all, so he did that,” Herman said.

“I thought he played really well, for the limited minutes that he got. He will certainly get a lot more this week.”

Beck called Johnson a “special athlete” a week after noting that Johnson reached 21 miles per hour in practice recently, a top speed that qualifies him for that moniker.

The newest addition to the position room is Gbenda, who fits the profile of a running back at 6’0, 220 pounds. Beck said he played some running back in high school, as well.

“We felt like he was a guy who could run,” Beck said of the decision-making process to move Gbenda. “So, he was willing to do it, but he’s a guy that’s helping us and contributing to us right now on special teams and defensively, they felt like, give him a look, so that’s what we’re doing.”

Expect a longer transition period for Gbenda than Johnson needed since Gbenda didn’t arrive in Austin until the summer, but it’s possible that he’ll have to play on Saturday, too.

Whether that happens or not, the coaches will have to call plays with the same confidence that they demand of their players on the field — a gameplan created out of avoidance in order to protect Ingram and Ehlinger almost certainly wouldn’t succeed against a defense with the caliber of LSU.