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Texas seeks separation in the running game entering spring practice

With young, talented options in the backfield, the Longhorns look to find the right running back for 2018.

NCAA Football: Texas Bowl-Texas vs Missouri Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns may have a running back problem.

A program that’s produced the likes of Cedric Benson, Ricky Williams and Earl Campbell has churned out just two 1,000-yard rushers in the last 10 years — D’Onta Foreman and Jamaal Charles – with a nine-year gap between the two.

In 2017, with a banged-up and struggling offensive line, the Texas running game never found its rhythm. In fact, it took four running backs to reach 1,200 yards just one season after Forman single-handedly scampered for 2,028 yards en route to the Doak Walker Award.

As a team, Texas amassed just 1,815 net rushing yards and averaged 3.58 yards per rush, good enough to finish No. 108 out of 129 FBS schools.

Going forward, Texas enters the 2018 season with a ton of talent, but not a lot of separation in the backfield as the ‘Horns try to find their next starting running back. Even in the age of running back by committee, Texas must find at least one runner that can create yardage when blocking breaks down.

Junior Kyle Porter started the 2017 season as a co-starter, splitting carries with Chris Warren III, but never developed into a reliable option in the backfield. He finished the year with just 274 yards on 83 attempts, eclipsing the 20-yard mark just five times in 2017. By the final six games of the season, Porter was surpassed on the depth chart and saw his playing time diminish.

To add injury to a possible insult, Porter could be sidelined for the entirety of spring practice due to an ankle injury sustained before Spring Break. If he does miss the spring practice, Porter could find himself far behind his younger counterparts.

One such younger player is Daniel Young, who could be the Longhorns breakout talent after seeing his stock rise in the final six games of the season. After not receiving a meaningful carry in the first seven games, Young racked up 71 carries and 361 yards on the ground in the closing five games. Combined with his four carries for 27 yards in clean-up duty against San Jose State, he finished second on the team in rushing behind only Sam Ehlinger.

He continues to live up to Tom Herman’s billing as a “steal” of the 2017 recruiting cycle. Going into just his fourth year playing the position after switching from linebacker his junior year of high school, there’s reason to expect Young to continue to progress.

Not far behind Young is another underclassman that could have a big impact on the running game — Toneil Carter, who also saw an increased workload as the season progressed.

In spite of a suspension keeping him out of the Texas Bowl, Carter managed to make a name for himself, and ended the season averaging 4.8 yards per carry; the highest among all Texas ball-carriers. His breakout game came against the Baylor Bears, as he finished with a team-high 79 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown.

The Longhorns could opt to use both in a regular rotation, as they did successfully late into the 2017 season.

Against Baylor, Kansas and West Virginia, Carter and Young proved to be a potent combination, combining for at least 100 yards in all three contests for a total of 343 yards and five touchdowns.

Those three wins guaranteed the Longhorns their first bowl berth since the 2014 season and opened the door for their first winning season since Mack Brown’s final effort on the sidelines of Darrell K. Royal Stadium.

Heading into spring practice, Tom Herman singled out junior running back Tristian Houston as another name to watch in the running game. Houston has yet to factor in a significant way for Texas, but he “came in to bowl practice and really turned some heads in a positive way and has followed that up with a good offseason,” Herman said

As Texas continues to look for solutions in the running game, another player who could contribute the running game in a significant way is yet to arrive even on campus — Keaontay Ingram.

In an interview with Longhorn Network, Herman singled Ingram out as one of two signees from the second signing period that could contribute from Day 1. Ingram was a force to be reckoned with for the Carthage Bulldogs, finishing his junior and senior seasons with a combined 555 carries, 4,569 yards and 69 touchdowns.

Ingram appears to be a hybrid of what Texas has on campus right now and come fall, he has the talent to push the more-experienced players, if not pass them altogether. During the Bulldogs’ deep playoff run he showed his ability to make defenders miss anywhere on the field, as well as top-end speed to simply run by slower defenders.

Add to that his abilities to catch the ball out of the backfield and make the first defender miss, Ingram could quickly develop into the every-down back that coaches covet.

The Texas running game should also see a boost from a schematic standpoint as new co-offensive coordinator Herb Hand steps in to helm the offensive line.

Hand is known as one of the best architects of blocking scheme for the run-first spread offenses. Add in a year of experience from younger contributors, the signing of junior college guard Mikey Grandy, and the transfer of plug-and-play left tackle Calvin Anderson, and the Texas offensive line should see significant improvement over its 2017 outing.

This, in turn, should translate to a much-improved unit in the backfield, especially if those such as Young and Carter progress as projected.

Either way, heading into spring practice, and ultimately the 2018 season, Texas must find its answers in the running game to have any balance on offense.