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Spotlight turns to Texas RB CJ Baxter and company following Jonathon Brooks injury

With Brooks out, the nation’s No. 1 running back in the 2023 recruiting class takes center stage as the Longhorns continue to chase a Big 12 title and College Football Playoff berth.

NCAA Football: Texas at Texas Christian Ricardo B. Brazziell-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas — When Texas Longhorns redshirt sophomore running back Jonathon Brooks crawled off the field at Amon Carter Stadium on Saturday against the TCU Horned Frogs with a torn ACL, his Doak Walker candidacy and 2024 NFL Draft hopes all took heavy blows as the Longhorns lost one of the nation’s most productive FBS running backs for the season.

“Naturally losing Jonathan for the season is a tough blow for us. I’ve said this about a couple other backs that were here before him, but I think the one thing that probably stings most for us as a team is the teammate that Jonathan Brooks is — he’s a better person than he is football player and he is a heck of a football player. He’s a great runner, he can pass protect, he’s a weapon out of the backfield catching the ball,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said during his weekly press conference on Monday.

Holding on for the 29-26 win over TCU allowed Texas to keep its Big 12 title and College Football Playoff hopes alive just as the injury to Brooks thrust freshman running back CJ Baxter and a talented position room into the spotlight as the Horns play for their postseason future.

“Obviously it creates opportunities for CJ Baxter, Jaydon Blue, Keilan Robinson, Savion Red and those guys are more than capable of doing a great job. So systematically, things will not change for us on that front and we’ve got a lot of faith in those guys that they’re going to perform at a high level,” said Sarkisian.

Expect Baxter to move into the starting role that he held for the first two games of the season before injuries allowed Brooks to take control of the position — a less significant rib issue that forced Baxter to exit the season opener and a more serious foot injury that ended his game against Alabama and lingered for weeks.

“I think one thing we’re fortunate about, the timing is pretty incredible in that CJ’s really 100-percent healthy again and I’d feel really uncomfortable if this would have happened a month ago because Cedric was really struggling with his foot. For him to be healthy, I’m very confident in that,” said Sarkisian.

The foot injury didn’t just have an impact on Baxter’s production, especially his ability to produce explosive runs, it also impacted his running style, causing the Florida product to lose his decisiveness in the backfield instead of quickly getting downhill.

There were signs in the last month that Baxter was starting to get healthier, like a broken tackle on a 15-yard catch against Kansas and a 16-yard touchdown run against Houston to break a 24-24 deadlock with 5:37 remaining in the fourth quarter.

But it still took until the Kansas State game for Baxter to produce his second career play of longer than 16 yards — a 4th and 1 in the Kansas State game turned into a 54-yard touchdown.

Against TCU, it was once again a struggle for Baxter to produce explosive plays with long run of nine yards among his 18 carries for 61 yards, but there were times when Baxter was a broken tackle away from creating a long run.

As Texas finishes the season without Brooks, who Baxter is off the field could be just as important as who he is on the field in determining his success, in particular what sets Baxter apart from other top recruits as the former No. 30 overall prospect and No. 1 running back in the 247Sports Composite rankings.

“You learn about a young man in recruiting and then as you get them on your campus and you get to know them. He’s a really mature young man. In today’s society with young people who are the five-star recruits coming out that it’s all about me, me, me and how can I get this and how can I get that, he was never that way. He was about opportunity, he was about style of offense and scheme and I think that’s where we fit — he was about development and coaching,” said Sarkisian.

Baxter’s maturity has translated into a work ethic that is as elite as his talent.

“Since he’s gotten here, his work ethic has been tremendous. If he’s not unparalleled, he’s right there at the top two or three percent of our team from a work-ethic standpoint and really wanting to learn and wanting to get better,” said Sarkisian.

For the Texas head coach and running backs coach Tashard Choice, excelling in pass protection is a non-negotiable for players at the position to get on the field for the Longhorns, an area where former running back Roschon Johnson was elite and remains elite at the next level.

“Pass protection is always probably the biggest thing for a young man making the transition from high school to college and then from college to the NFL, picking up pressures and blitzes and things of that nature,” said Sarkisian.

At 6’1, 218 pounds, Baxter doesn’t have a low center of gravity or even necessarily a prototypical build for a running back, but he does have an ideal build for pass protection with his height and length.

On the crucial 3rd and 12 against TCU on Saturday with a chance to put the game away, it was Baxter in pass protection, along with the interior of the offensive line, that provided a clean pocket against a blitz for redshirt sophomore quarterback Quinn Ewers to connect with junior wide receiver AD Mitchell on the game-clinching play.

“When we throw the ball to AD Mitchell, Cedric Baxter’s picking up a safety blitz off the weak side and and not on accident — he went and met the safety and kept a really clean pocket, so we’re seeing the growth in him of the overall player,” said Sarkisian.

On the depth chart, senior Keilan Robinson, primarily a special teams standout, is the third-string running back and serves as a change-of-pace option for Sarkisian. Robinson has seen his usage decrease from 45 carries in 2021 to 25 carries last season to only seven carries and six receptions this year.

So the real backup to Baxter is Blue, the sophomore speedster who made a cameo appearance against TCU running a wheel route on the screen pass that Brooks took 73 yards, helping Brooks find a seam behind his downfield block.

“We’ve been kind of injecting Jaydon Blue a little bit more into the offense, so I think his comfort level of playing and he’s had some carries — he had the long touchdown run versus BYU — I think his comfort level will be there,” said Sarkisian.

Blue saw his most extensive action of the season in the opener against Rice with 10 carries for 55 yards before producing a 17-yard carry in the win over Kansas and the 34-yard touchdown run late against BYU that showcased the speed that once upon a time made Blue one of the top running back prospects in the 2022 recruiting class. The first touchdown run of Blue’s Texas career saw the Klein Cain product reach 20.9 miles per hour, making him one of the fastest players in college football that week.

With a smile, junior wide receiver Xavier Worthy admitted on Monday that Blue is probably the second-fastest player on the team.

The fourth running back in the mix for playing time is sophomore Savion Red, who has carved out a short-yardage role in the Wildcat package that is experiencing diminishing returns over the last two games.

“We feel comfortable that we have those four guys, that core of guys,” said Sarkisian. “Obviously it’s Monday and we’re still working through the game plan of exactly how it all rolls out, but we’re comfortable with those guys going in the game and playing.”

For senior right tackle Christian Jones, it’s about the entire offense doing its part to make up for the loss of Brooks.

“We’ve got to look to the offense as well to step up and kind of pull our own weight some more, tighten down the hatches and make sure that we don’t miss any steps so we can continue to progress throughout the season,” said Jones.