AUSTIN, Texas — A year ago, the Texas Longhorns were looking at close to a worst-case scenario at running back.
Starter Keontay Ingram suffered a knee injury during the first scrimmage that kept him out of practice and eventually resulted in a slow start to the season. Backup Daniel Young was rehabilitating from an ankle injury. While still recovering from a stroke suffered in February of 2019, signee Derrian Brown wasn’t able to practice. Jordan Whittington was dealing with the lingering effects of groin surgery in high school and ended up lasting less than a half before his season ended. Even walk-on running back Jarrett Smith was out injured.
As a result, Texas had to move freshman quarterback Roschon Johnson to running back during preseason camp, as well as walk-on defensive back Mason Ramirez.
It was a mess.
This year, the situation looks much more positive — other than a hamstring injury that has slowed Ingram, the position group is healthy. And although Young opted out of the season, Texas landed the top Division II rusher from 2019 in Sioux Falls graduate transfer Gabriel Watson.
The signing of the No. 1 running back in 2020, Bijan Robinson out of Arizona, afforded Texas the ability to move Whittington to wide receiver, the position he was recruited to play, as Johnson opted to remain at running back.
Now Stan Drayton’s room has enough healthy talent that Texas head coach Tom Herman isn’t concerned about having a clear-cut starter at running back.
“I know everybody wants to know about depth chart, but running back is one of those positions where I think it’s pretty irrelevant who jogs out with the ones the very first play,” Herman said on Sunday.
So even though Ingram gained 853 yards last season on nearly six yards per carry, expect a rotation at the position, with playing time determined on what specific packages new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich wants to employ and which player is most effective.
“You know those guys — all three of them — are going to play and play quite a bit and have different packages for them and, and certainly as the game goes on, you’ll get a feel for who’s seeing the game well and who might be having an off night maybe here or there,” Herman said.
Since Ingram is a proven commodity who now ranks among the top 30 running backs in school history with 1,561 rushing yards over two seasons, Herman’s statements speak to the talent at the position.
Johnson quickly adjusted to running back last year, showing impressive one-cut ability and willingness to keep his legs moving on contact to pick up extra yardage. After an offseason training at the position, he’s up to 227 pounds with an improved running back skill set.
He’s still running hard, too, as he reportedly injured middle linebacker Ayodele Adeoye during a drill last week.
In fact, Johnson has been so good that sources told Horns247 that the Port Neches-Groves product is now the team’s best running back.
The buzz around Robinson is equally emphatic. The two-time Arizona Player of the Year, Robinson arrived in Austin physically looking like a much older player and with the maturity to make a quick transition to college football.
Expect a package of plays for him that seek to get him in space to take advantage of the speed and playmaking that causes senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger to want to stand around watching him.
In one clip from practice, Robinson takes a screen pass the distance for a touchdown.
Just after arriving in Austin, a viral video clip shows Robinson demonstrating his fluidity and hands as a pass catcher.
Texas RB Bijan Robinson with an absurd snag from Caleb Hurd.— Unnecessary Roughness (@UnnecRoughness) July 1, 2020
Oh yeah, he JUST graduated high school. pic.twitter.com/LTpjkBQGlp
Based on Herman’s comments, it’s clear that the staff is working to provide Robinson opportunities early in the season and based on the projections for UTEP this year, the first chances to make an impact should come in the season opener.
“We’ve got three guys that we feel like we can win with, and they’re all gonna play,” Herman said.