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Developing running ability of Texas QB Quinn Ewers adding versatility to offense

Whether converting third downs or scoring in the red zone, the legs of Ewers are becoming an impactful part of the Longhorn offensive attack.

NCAA Football: Kansas at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas — After the 40-14 win over the No. 24 Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, Texas Longhorns sophomore left tackle Kelvin Banks laughed when recalling redshirt sophomore quarterback Quinn Ewers scrambling for a 30-yard touchdown against the Baylor Bears the week before.

“I remember after the Baylor game when he ran that long touchdown kind of tripping over his own feet, I told him, ‘You were running too fast for yourself.’ So we joked with him a little bit about it,” Banks said.

Against Kansas, Ewers continued to flash his scrambling ability, running for a 29-yard touchdown on 3rd and 9, the second week in a row he scored the game’s first touchdown.

“He’s figured out, ‘Man, maybe I’m a little faster than I thought.’ Last week probably helped on that,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said after the Kansas game.

Just how fast, though? Ewers didn’t know his miles per hour on the run when asked on Saturday. Did he hit 20 miles per hour? “I sure hope so, but probably not,” Ewers said.

Whatever speed Ewers is hitting on his runs, it’s assuredly faster than he was capable of last season when he was 20 pounds heavier and not as dedicated to his strength and conditioning, a huge point of emphasis for Ewers entering what many consider a contract year.

“This is where I want to be — I think I took a lot of time analyzing myself last year and I want to be able to do stuff like this and I think I really worked on it this offseason,” Ewers said. “For it to start working out, it’s pretty cool.”

The burgeoning running ability of Ewers is such a storyline because while he ran for 701 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns in high school at Southlake Carroll, he was lauded as the nation’s top prospect and a generational talent purely because of his elite passing ability.

As a redshirt freshman, there were only small flashes of running ability from Ewers, who gained just three first downs in nine games with a long run of 16 yards, one of only two runs of more than 10 yards.

In the 49-0 win over Oklahoma, Ewers scrambled for 16 yards on 3rd and 11 late in the first half as Texas drove for a touchdown to extend the lead to 28-0.

After going through preparation for the Alamo Bowl, Ewers appeared to gain more decisiveness as a runner against Washington, converting a 3rd and 2 late in the first quarter and then running for 13 yards on a 2nd and 10 as Texas tried to mount a fourth-quarter comeback that ultimately fell short.

Between the Cotton Bowl and the Alamo Bowl, Ewers had a long run of seven yards against Kansas.

This year, Ewers has already gained six first downs with his legs — and scored five rushing touchdowns, including the explosive scrambles against Baylor and Kansas, making defenses pay for playing man coverage in third-and-long situations.

“If I need to pick up a third down every now and then, I feel comfortable doing that,” Ewers said.

Six runs have covered 10-plus yards this season, including four conversions of 3rd and 7-9, critical drive-extending plays for an offense that currently ranks tied for 57th nationally in third-down conversions at 42.0 percent. One came on the critical drive to open the second half with Texas leading Kansas 13-7 when Ewers scrambled up the middle for 10 yards on 3rd and 8. Three plays later, redshirt sophomore running back Jonathon Brooks raced 54 yards for a touchdown.

“That’s an added weapon because now that affects coverages, right? That affects, how do you cover us? If you’re going to play a man-to-man principles and you’re going to turn your back and try to double receivers, who has the quarterback?” Sarkisian said.

Defenses remain unlikely to commit a spy to stopping Ewers in third-and-long situations, but opposing coordinators may consider whether heavily employing man coverage on those downs is an effective strategy since the Texas quarterback has proven himself a running threat from outside the red zone.

The decision between man versus zone coverage isn’t the only impact caused by the improving running ability of Ewers — pass rushers also have to take his legs into account.

“Now that puts an onus on the defensive line in the rush patterns, because now maybe they’re not rushing as hard because they don’t want to give him those running lanes to take off on third down,” Sarkisian said.

And that could provide Ewers more time in the pocket to find wide receivers running deep routes or creating late separation.

While the touchdown scrambles have helped the Longhorns avoid running plays in the red area on those two drives against the Bears and the Jayhawks, the Texas offense is struggling to score touchdowns inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. After settling for two field goals in five red-zone trips against the Kansas, Texas is tied for 108th nationally with touchdowns on 11-of-21 possessions in the red zone, a touchdown rate of 52.4 percent.

Of the 11 touchdowns scored by the Horns in the red zone, Ewers has run for three of them, tied for redshirt sophomore running back Jonathon Brooks for the team lead in that category. Sarkisian is notoriously averse to calling quarterback run plays, but he is willing to employ the zone read or call a naked boot on the goal line as he did against Kansas when Ewers was able to beat a defender to the pylon.

For the new-look Ewers, slimmer and without his formerly trademark mullet, the running ability is a new look for his college career, and one that is bolstering a Texas offense that is already explosive, but lagging in the two critical areas where the legs of Ewers are making a difference.

“I thought he used his legs really effectively tonight and had a couple of big third-down scrambles,” Sarkisian said. “Obviously the touchdown run was the biggest one of them all and then even there at the goal line with the keeper out the back door. So again, it’s just another added weapon — it’s adding to the versatility of who we are offensively.”