Over the last several months, there’s been a sweet, sweet fantasy playing through the minds of Texas Longhorns fans — visions of running backs in burnt orange and white breaking tackles and creating big plays in the open field.
Considering the promise shown by rising redshirt sophomore Jonathon Brooks, the talent of the nation’s consensus No. 1 running back Cedric Baxter Jr., the speed of rising senior Keilan Robinson, and the potential of rising redshirt freshman Jaydon Blue, there is some grounding in reality.
But expecting those players to fill in seamlessly for the departed Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson was like watching Mariah Carey’s music video as a teenager in the late 1990s and hoping to be the future object of her affection.
Probably didn’t go so well.
Before even running at the NFL Scouting Combine this week, Robinson is considered a potentially generational running back after breaking more tackles than anyone else in college football last season and was also in contention with rising junior tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders as having the best hands on the team. Johnson combined a unique blend of speed and power that could vault him into a Day 2 selection in the 2023 NFL Draft and was an accomplished pass catcher and excellent pass protector besides serving on multiple special teams. And all that doesn’t even mention Johnson’s remarkable leadership abilities.
None of this is to knock the potential of the players in position coach Tashard Choice’s room. Few programs would pass up on the chance to change places with the Longhorns. It’s just worth delivering a reality check with spring practice starting on Monday.
With five touchdowns and 197 yards over 30 carries in 2022, Brooks took advantages of his opportunities, especially in rushing for 108 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries in the blowout win over Kansas, including a 70-yard touchdown run that showed off his explosiveness. Brooks isn’t the biggest running back at 202 pounds, but he showed his long speed on that run, can make defenders miss in small spaces, and demonstrates flashes of contact balance.
Originally expected to play a bigger role in the Alamo Bowl with Robinson and Johnson out, Brooks was instead a perplexingly small part of head coach Steve Sarkisian’s game plan, carrying the ball only six times for 18 yards and a touchdown while recording a 34-yard touchdown catch. The subsequent news that Brooks underwent hernia surgery in the week after the bowl game helped explain his limited usage, but will likely miss at least some part of spring practice.
Still, the setback shouldn’t be enough to keep him from competing for the starting job in the fall.
Cedric Baxter Jr.
Behind a sensational senior season, Baxter not only ended the cycle as the nation’s consensus No. 1 running back, but also a signed member of the Texas recruiting class who enrolled early thanks to Choice’s ability to keep him from hot pursuit from in-state programs like Florida and Florida State.
The loss of those Sunshine State schools is the gain of the Longhorns with Baxter having a chance to vault towards the top of the depth cart at the position early in spring practice with Brooks out or limited.
A big, upright runner, Baxter has a physical, no-nonsense style that always him to get north-south with momentum and run through arm tackles, while still having the feet to navigate through around defenders at the line of scrimmage when necessary. Baxter might have to work on playing behind his pads more at the college level to keep breaking tackles, but his floor is high thanks to his impressive physical attributes and a strong work ethic.
In case Sark had any lingering confusion about Robinson’s ideal fit as a core special teams contributor and outside-the-tackles threat — whether on handoffs or short passes — the Alamo Bowl surely relieved it after Robinson turned eight carries into only 27 yards with a long carry of seven yards.
With a blocked punt, 14 kickoff returns for 403 yards, and 20 catches for 219 yards and three touchdowns in 2022, Robinson proved himself a valuable player in those areas while also making clear his limitations with 25 carries for 86 yards.
Used correctly, Robinson is a clear asset. Used incorrectly, Robinson is a recipe to end up off schedule.
Once considered one of the best running backs in the 2022 class, Blue dropped in the rankings after opting out of his senior season and spend a considerable part of the fall getting back into football shape and football rhythm.
As the fifth-string running back, Blue didn’t have many opportunities to flash the 10.7 100-meter speed he showed off in high school, receiving 15 carries for 33 yards at the extreme fringe of the garbage time Texas created in 2022. Not receiving a carry in the Alamo Bowl was surely a disappointment, too, as he was anticipated to at least factor into the rotation in San Antonio.
So even though Blue is entering the spring of his redshirt freshman season, it looms as a critical one with Baxter on campus — earning a spot in the rotation won’t be easy for Blue, but the failure to do so would make his path forward on the Forty Acres increasingly difficult.
Even more so than the quarterback position, the chore for Choice is engaging the process of turning potential into production to ensure the running game misses as few beats as possible. If Brooks and Baxter come close to maximizing their abilities as young players, though, the running game will still need offensive line improvement and passing game improvement to maintain its efficiency given how many times Robinson simply made things right against unblocked defenders.