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Jonathon Brooks emerging as worthy RB1 for Texas

Highly-ranked freshman CJ Baxter opened the year as the starter, but the mature redshirt sophomore has taken advantage of Baxter’s injuries to make his case as the lead back for the Longhorns.

NCAA Football: Texas at Baylor Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas — The assessment from Texas Longhorns redshirt sophomore running back Jonathon Brooks was redolent of his personality — asked about his best attribute following a career-high 164 yards in a win over the Wyoming Cowboys that included a critical 61-yard run early in the fourth quarter to set up a touchdown that extended the lead to 21 points, Brooks demurred.

“I’m not really sure,” Brooks said last week. “I’m not fast, I say, and I don’t always make the first guy miss, but I’d guess I say I try to make the first guy miss. I don’t know, really.”

The response belied a performance in which Brooks did make the first defender miss on the longest high-leverage run of his career.

Brooks made plenty of other Cowboys defenders miss in that game, too — 10 total — more than any other Power Five running backs that week. Even then, he was quick to tell reporters after the game that he left some yards on the field in the first half when Wyoming came out in the defense they hadn’t previously put on film.

In the 38-6 win over Baylor last Saturday, a 40-yard touchdown by Brooks opened the scoring and flashed better speed than Brooks was willing to admit he possesses.

“I mean, I’m not slow, but I’m saying I just need to work on my speed a little more,” Brooks responded to a follow-up question about his wheels before the Baylor game.

Perhaps Brooks was among those deemed as surprised by Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian on Monday in revealing that the 6’0, 207-pounder nearly reached 22 miles per hour on that run.

“He’s got more juice in there than maybe we give him credit for,” Sarkisian said.

The lengthy touchdown run against the Bears helped Brooks continue his ascension to current RB1 for the Longhorns in rushing for 106 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries, his second straight 100-yard performance and a glimpse of what the Hallettsville product can do in the feature role for which Brooks had to wait to years to compete.

Sitting behind first-round pick Bijan Robinson and fourth-round pick Roschon Johnson in 2021 and 2022, Brooks only received 51 carries, mostly in garbage time, but flashed potential in rushing for 340 yards and six touchdowns.

In a world of instant gratification enabled in college sports by the NCAA transfer portal, Brooks waited for his opportunity, benefitting from the chance to soak up knowledge from the two older running backs, whether it was Robinson’s uncanny ability to make defenders miss in small spaces or Johnson’s special ability to command the locker room.

“I think he got a great experience his first two years here playing with Bijan and Roschon,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “In one, the type of teammates that they were, two the leadership they provided, three the work ethic that they played with, and then for the skill set, right, some of the little nuances that they do when they play.”

In the hole against two Baylor defenders on Saturday, Brooks looked like Bijan-lite with his ability to create missed tackles and turn a potential tackle for loss into a solid gain to keep Texas ahead of the chains.

The key is that Brooks isn’t trying to be Bijan Robinson. Or Roschon Johnson. He’s mature enough to forge his own unique path.

“Everybody’s a different running back and everybody has a different game and stuff. I go into the facility every day going to work my hardest and just be a better player every day, get one percent better every day and just be the player that I need to be to help this team,” Brooks said.

The coaching staff’s evaluation of Brooks as a mature leader earned him on a spot on the leadership council and a more prominent role in the locker room.

“JB has definitely taken a big step in leadership this year realizing that he’s no longer an underclassmen any more — it’s his third year,” senior running back Keilan Robinson said during preseason camp. “So he’s just taking it by the reins and becoming a better leader day by day.”

Part of that leadership ability from Brooks is his unselfishness, an important trait in a talented running back room.

“I just want the team to win, whether that’s me getting five carries, who cares? It doesn’t matter to me, I want to win, I want to do my role, whether that’s special teams running the ball, catching the ball, whatever it is, just to win the game,” Brooks said.

Even a question about the individual goals for Brooks — he wants to show people what he can do — ultimately turned back to the ultimate team goal of winning.

It’s something Brooks did a lot of in high school.

Faced with the difficult task of recruiting a running back in the class after signing Bijan Robinson, then-position coach Stan Drayton offered and pursued some of the top prospects in the nation, including in-state standouts LJ Johnson and Camar Wheaton, both top-five running backs nationally. Ultimately, those recruiting efforts failed to pay off late in the cycle when Wheaton signed with Alabama and Johnson inked with Texas A&M, forcing Drayton’s ability as an evaluator to loom large in the class.

More than a year before, Texas became the first offer for Brooks, a standout at 3A Hallettsville, a town of less than 3,000 people south of I-10 halfway between San Antonio and Houston. Brooks was deep into a big-time junior season that saw him eventually rack up 2,114 yards on 216 carries (9.2 yards per carry) with 38 rushing touchdowns as Hallettsville went 11-3, losing in the playoff quarterfinals to rival Columbus.

Two and a half months later, Brooks received his only other Power Five offer from Texas Tech before Texas State, Houston Baptist, UTSA, Louisiana, and Colorado State eventually entered his recruitment, one won by the Longhorns in May 2020.

Drayton’s evaluation looked even more prescient when Brooks turned in an absolutely monster senior season, carrying the ball 295 times for 3,530 yards (12.0 yards per carry) and 68 rushing touchdowns. In a playoff win over Lorena, Brooks turned 27 carries into 501 yards (18.6 ypc) and nine touchdowns. Brooks and the Brahmas later avenged the season-ending 2019 loss to the Cardinal in a quarterfinal rematch, advancing to the semis for the first time in 40 years, but fell short of a state championship when Tuscola Jim Ned, Colt McCoy’s alma mater, secured its first state title with a 21-point comeback over Hallettsville capped by a two-point conversion in overtime. Can’t blame the Jim Ned head coach for not wanting to put the ball back in the hands of Brooks, right?

Still, the expectations remained relatively modest for the 6’0, 185-pound Brooks, who ended the cycle ranked as the No. 354 player nationally, the No. 24 running back, and the No. 51 player in Texas, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Four running backs in the state ranked higher than him.

Fast forward two years and Brooks suffered a postseason setback in the Alamo Bowl when a hernia limited him to six carries for 18 yards and a rushing touchdown, as well as a 34-yard receiving touchdown on a screen pass, keeping Brooks from making a case as the lead back heading into the offseason.

Subsequent surgery ensured that Brooks missed spring practice, impacting his ability to finally compete for the starting role, difficult timing for the rising redshirt sophomore with CJ Baxter arriving in January with a much different recruiting pedigree than Brooks — over 50 offers, including the nation’s elite programs, and a ranking as the No. 1 running back and the No. 22 prospect overall.

“It was obviously a little difficult just not being out there practicing doing what I love, but it kind of helped me be more intentional, be more focused with the details, like knowing what I have, I can sit back and I’d get mental reps and it’s not always just physical. So I just sat back and got mental reps and it really helped,” Brooks said.

Baxter’s natural talent and physical reps during the spring helped the freshman earn the nod as the first co-starter at running back and a chance to take the field with the first team in the season opener against Rice.

But Brooks had an edge over Baxter in physical maturity — he was listed at 185 pounds in high school, 199 pounds as a freshman, and is now at 207 pounds — allowing him to step into the feature role when Baxter suffered a rib issue after falling awkwardly on the football at the end of a run in the season opener and then injured his foot against Alabama.

So far, Brooks hasn’t looked back, not even visibly questioning his speed in the open field, leaving that for media availabilities instead.

On Saturday when the Longhorns and Jayhawks meet, Brooks will have a chance to build on the best performance of his underclassman career, an 11-carry, 108-yard, two-touchdown game with a 70-yard touchdown run against Kansas in the 55-14 win by Texas in Lawrence last year.

But that came in garbage time against a defense already demoralized by Bijan Robinson running for 243 yards and four touchdowns. An improved Jayhawks defensive front should provide a stiffer challenge for Brooks and the Longhorns this weekend.

If the last two games are any indication, though, Brooks will keep rising to the occasion while remaining humble about his potential and his accomplishments.

“Jonathan has definitely earned the opportunity to get a bulk of carries,” Sarkisian said. “He’s doing it at a high level and now he’s just got to keep mastering the total package of the complete game.”