The Texas Longhorns running back room was nothing to write home about in 2017. Consequently, much has been written throughout the offseason about the need for position coach Stan Drayton’s unit to progress considerably in 2018.
Just one season removed the D’Onta Foreman’s Doak Walker Award-winning campaign, in which he scampered his way to 2,208 yards, the Longhorns running back room became a revolving door of inexperience and sub-mediocrity. The top four Texas running backs — including two true freshmen — totaled a mere 1,200 yards as the program produced its lowest leading rusher since Mike Dowdle in 1958.
Worse yet, that leading rusher wasn’t even a running back — it was true freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who headlined the Horns with 385 yards.
Place the blame where you wish.
An injury-plagued offensive line didn’t provide any running back with an opportunity rate greater than 35.8 percent, which is an entire 11 percent lower than what Rodney Anderson enjoyed behind Oklahoma’s front line. The passing game was inconsistent and unthreatening at best. Yet, despite considerably unsavory circumstances, the reality remains that far more times than not, the Texas running back corps brought next to nothing to the table due a general inability to make defenders miss and create plays in space.
For the Horns to progress in 2018, Drayton simply has to find a running back rotation capable of doing so. The good news to that end is he’s not short on developed options.
“That’s a very deep room. It just has not been a room that has had a ton of talent separating itself, but we have spent countless hours developing them,” Herman said of his running backs at Big 12 Media Days. “Let’s not forget that we’ve got a bunch of guys on our roster who have busted their tails to develop and I think they have,” Herman later added. “Every single guy in that room has developed.”
To be specific, Drayton has seven scholarship running backs available from which he’ll attempt to construct a consistent ball-carrying corps.
The most likely scenario is that the coming weeks will see sophomore Daniel Young and graduate transfer Tre Watson contend for the top spot, although Texas will almost certainly employ a running back by committee rotation in 2018, as opposed to a true feature back. Considering that Herman called for open tryouts at running back at the front end of spring practice, the general expectation may be for Watson to arrive and immediately assume his place as the primary ball carrier.
That’s not the case — not yet at least.
After struggling out of the gates, Young closed the spring on a much higher note and thus, he’s the one earning first-team reps at the front end of fall camp. It’s worth noting that Watson is still a bit limited in practice due to his ACL injury last season, though he should make things more interesting going forward, but as evident with Calvin Anderson still taking second-team reps at left tackle, the starting job won’t simply to handed over to Watson on account of his experience and versatility, as essential as it may be.
Young, on the other hand, received only 11 carries in the first eight games of his collegiate career, but he capped his debut season with five consecutive starts and has since maintained that top spot throughout the spring and on into the fall.
On the surface, Young’s stats aren’t staggering and certainly don’t tell the story as to why he’s the first name on the depth chart, but there is a picture to paint, nevertheless.
Despite seeing carries in only seven games, Young led the running back room with 373 rushing yards and after earning the starting nod down the stretch, he headlined the Horns rushing efforts in each of the final five games of the season. Young found his niche as the more physical option — the thunder to Toneil Carter’s lightning, so to speak — but also flashed elusiveness en route to 17 forced missed tackles, per Pro Football Focus.
Not to mention, with Texas placing increased emphasis on ball security, Young fared fairly well for a true freshman who didn’t find many opportunities until the final five games of the season with only one fumble in 81 attempts.
While the raw numbers during that span weren’t world-beating efforts by any means — 286 yards on 4.1 yards per carry and 10 receptions for 136 yards — the general consensus following the Texas Bowl was that Young had emerged as the new No. 1 option entering the offseason.
While Young is still taking first-team reps, that same consensus doesn’t exist today with Watson headlining a considerably deeper and more versatile running back corps pushing for carries.
The most experienced option in Drayton’s running back room, Watson boasts more career touches (310) than the rest of the running backs combined (301), and he comes accompanied with the confidence to match. Watson arrived on the Forty Acres with the mindset that he was not only the ball carrier in Austin but the best in the entire country.
Although Watson living up to his own hype would be the most ideal situation at Texas, it isn’t what’s expected.
Rather, think Chris Ogbonnaya in 2008, or Duke Catalon at Houston in 2016 — the former finished the season with 373 yards on the ground and another 540 yards as a receiving threat out of the backfield, while the latter compiled 528 yards as a ball carrier and added 281 yards as a receiver.
Throughout his final fully healthy season at California in 2016, Watson totaled 709 rushing yards as a shifty and elusive secondary option and complemented that with 241 yards as a pass catcher.
Watson anticipated another step forward in 2017 — he entered what should have been his final season on the Doak Walker Award watch list — but just two games into the season, Watson went down with a torn ACL, which ultimately earned him another year of eligibility and, eventually, an opportunity at Texas.
Now on the Forty Acres, Watson seemingly has a clearly-paved path to playing time.
Even if it isn’t as the outright starter, Watson will likely see the field as much, if not more than any other running back on the roster. As is, Watson’s versatility as a true receiving threat out of the backfield is superior to those he’s vying for reps with and although he doesn’t boast elite speed, Watson’s elusiveness and ability to extend plays is something Texas sorely lacked last season.
Of course, Watson’s projected productivity is contingent upon his return from the ACL injury that ended his 2017 season, but he’s been cleared for non-contact activity for quite some time and to this point, the Texas staff has seen enough to place him above all but one running back on the depth chart.
While the early returns point towards Texas entering the season with Young and Watson as its top two options, the 2017 slate highlighted the need for as much depth at the position as possible — expectations aren’t always met.
Consequently, Young finished the season as the starter after sitting fourth on the depth chart last September, and Chris Warren III, the initial starting running back, had since been switched to tight end and announced his transfer from the program. Between development and the addition of talents such as Watson, there’s more reason for optimism surrounding the top end of the Texas running back rotation in 2018, but the reality remains that Young’s career-best effort is 85 yards and Watson has surpassed that feat just five times throughout his entire career.
Translation — Texas will, once again, need to institute a running back by committee rotation.
How deep into the depth chart Drayton reaches will, of course, be dependent upon the productivity he’s seeing from the position, but a finally healthy Kirk Johnson and true freshman Keaontay Ingram should be firmly in the mix following fall camp.
Johnson’s issue in Austin has always been injuries. Whether it was his knee, hamstring, or the surgery Johnson underwent at the front end of the offseason to remove bone chips in his ankle, which doctors believed was an underlying issue in previous injuries, Johnson has spent the vast majority of his time at Texas simply trying to get healthy. While his lengthy list of previous ailments certainly prompts caution, the fourth-year junior finally seems to be enjoying full health and there’s some optimism about his upside if that remains the case.
“When he’s healthy he’s one of the best backs on the team,” a source told The Football Brainiacs.
Tom Herman said his expectation of running back Kirk Johnson is to stay healthy.— Anwar Richardson (@AnwarRichardson) August 2, 2018
On Wednesday, Herman praised the fourth-year junior saying, “He’s really talented, athletic, has tree trunks for legs, can move and cut and has some straight-line speed.”
Herman added that Johnson is “like a freshman from the standpoint of taking it from the playbook to the field,” and if he’s able to do so successfully, there’s generally little doubt that he could become a difference-maker if healthy. But again, that’s a big if given his history, and in the meantime, Johnson’s plate this fall is full enough trying to fend off a true freshman.
Ingram arrived in Austin as the top running back in Texas and there’s a quiet confidence that it may not be long before he becomes the top running back at Texas. Just days into in his first fall camp on the Forty Acres, Ingram is already creeping his way up the depth chart, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that he may be the most complete back in the roster.
A former Under Armour All-American, Ingram has earned comparisons to Arian Foster as a natural runner with great patience and vision, elite lateral quickness and burst, more top-end speed than he may be given credit for considering how effortless his running style is, and the kind of elusive, big-play ability Texas would have enjoyed having in 2017.
Throughout the past two seasons at Carthage, Ingram’s expansive skill set was utilized to the tune of 555 carries for 4,569 yards and 69 touchdowns,
What may be equally as essential to Ingram finding the field as a true freshman is that he’s proven capable of thriving as a true three-down back.
Much like Watson, Ingram excels as a receiving threat out of the backfield — he hauled in 70 receptions throughout the past two seasons — and he’s solid in pass protection as well. Of course, picking up an unblocked blitz in Power Five football isn’t exactly the same as doing so at the 4A level, but it helps that he’s added nearly 20 pounds and is now listed at 205 pounds.
Simply put, it won’t be this year, but Ingram has the makings of a future feature back and we should see flashes of that even as a true freshman.
As for the remaining three scholarship running backs — Carter, Porter, and Tristian Houston — carries may come few and far between, if at all.
Carter still features as much upside as any running back on the roster, but ball security and maturity concerns have seen him regress from emerging as a key piece in the Texas running back room as a freshman to falling behind a true freshman on the depth chart. Each issue was on full display during the Longhorns last two public appearances, as Carter was suspended for the Texas Bowl and fumbled his first carry in the spring game.
With fall camp now well underway and Carter trending in the wrong direction on the depth chart, a redshirt season may be the most realistic scenario, affording Carter time to mature and develop in hopes of re-joining the rotation in 2019 once Watson graduates.
Porter finds himself in a similar situation, although for different reasons.
Last season could have served as a springboard for the Katy product with Foreman gone and Warren failing to impress, but instead, Porter displayed a lack of vision and a general inability to make defenders miss. Consequently, he averaged just 3.1 yards per carry — the lowest effort among all the Texas running backs. Rather than being able to utilize the offseason to take that step forward, though, Porter missed the majority of the spring with an ankle injury, and when paired with Young’s progression, Johnson’s health, and the arrivals of Ingram and Watson, Porter won’t see much of the field in 2018.
The same can be said for Houston, who has seen just three carries in two seasons. The fourth-year junior finds himself at the bottom of the Texas running back totem pole, and to add insult to injury, Houston is now injured after suffering bruised ribs on Wednesday. Houston didn’t see the field in 2017, and with how much depth sits ahead of him, there’s no reason to expect that to change this season.
Stan Drayton’s position room doesn’t feature the top ball carriers college football has to offer, and that’s fine. In a program pursuing progress, Drayton’s running back room should enjoy exactly that with a deeper, more versatile, and more experienced talent pool than what Texas had at this time last year.
“I expect to see us run the ball better for a variety of reasons,” Herman said in his pre-camp press conference. “Whether that be us as coaches coaching it better and focusing on schemes that maybe fit our talent level, the development of our offensive line and tailbacks, the health of our tight ends and the fact that we have tight ends now and, hopefully, the development of the pass game.”