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Despite Tom Herman’s confidence, there are question marks for Texas at RB

The Longhorns lack depth and a proven star at running back, but there are options to satisfy each area ahead of the 2019 season.

Tulsa v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

After essentially slumping into a sub-existence in 2017, the Texas Longhorns running back room enjoyed a fairly substantial step forward last season. Though the stats would suggest — and correctly so — that the ground game wasn’t much to write home about, ranking 98th in rushing S&P+ despite a record-setting effort from sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger, the productivity the Texas backfield mustered last season was leaps and bounds beyond 2017.

Two seasons ago, the four Texas running backs — Chris Warren III, Kyle Porter, Daniel Young, and Toneil Carter — amassed a mere 1,200 total yards. That four-man rotation was essentially cut in half last season with graduate transfer Tre Watson and true freshman Keaontay Ingram absorbing the bulk of the ball-carrying duties, yet the two single-handedly surpassed the entire running back production from 2017 with 1,494 yards.

The ball carriers weren’t world-beaters in 2018 by any means, but throughout a season in which simple progress was the projection, running backs coach Stan Drayton’s group was serviceable and did, in fact, enjoy progress.

But that running back room will look considerably different next season.

Gone is Watson, whose lone season in Austin saw him lead the Longhorns with 185 carries for 786 yards and three touchdowns. Gone is Carter, who once appeared primed to cement his role in the rotation before ultimately being buried on the depth chart, and thus, transferring out of the program in December. Seemingly set to follow in those same footsteps are Porter and Tristian Houston, as the redshirt junior and senior, respectively, are reportedly the latest Longhorns to pursue a transfer.

Should the latter two ultimately elect to follow through with their intentions to leave the program, the Longhorns will enter the spring with three pure scholarship running backs on the roster and early enrollee Jordan Whittington set to receive time there, according to head coach Tom Herman.

While general inexperience and depth — or the lack thereof — will be a talking point throughout the spring, summer, and on into fall camp, Texas survived with what amounted to a two-man running back rotation in 2018, and the talent at the top of the depth chart suggests the Horns could be able to do the same next season, as well.

And Herman didn’t exactly sound worried during his National Signing Day press conference.

“We have a lot of confidence in that room, as far as Keaontay, Kirk Johnson, Daniel Young, and then Jordan Whittington is going to get a lot of work at that position as well,” Herman said last week.

Set to spearhead Drayton’s running back room entering his sophomore season, Ingram provided his fair share of flashes throughout his debut campaign; enough, at least, that seemingly each weekend capped with clamors for the freshman to receive more carries. Understandably so.

Save for the minor injuries that ailed him throughout the season, as Ingram battled an MCL strain early on before being hindered by a hip pointer, he was the most electric and explosive option at Drayton’s disposal.

That much became evident as early as Ingram’s first handful of collegiate carries.

On just his third touch at Texas, Ingram ripped free for an 18-yard gain, setting the Horns up for a 1st and goal from the Maryland 5-yard line. Just moments later, Ingram’s fourth career carry saw him display the vision and shiftiness that helped him become the top-ranked running back in Texas in 2018, and ultimately, earn Ingram his first career trip across pay dirt.

Ingram saw only two more attempts against the Terps, finishing with six carries for 37 yards.

The next time out, though, with Texas hosting Tulsa, Ingram nearly matched that total on his first attempt, sidestepping and dodging defenders at will en route to a 29-yard touchdown scamper.

Fairly similar flashes followed throughout the regular season as Ingram’s health progressed and his workload increased. By the season’s mid-point, a 23-17 Longhorns win over Baylor, Ingram had assumed the majority of the ball-carrying responsibilities and rewarded the Texas staff for that decision, including a career-best effort against the Bears with 19 carries for 110 yards.

However, that showing marked Ingram’s peak, and seemingly as soon as Ingram began solidifying himself as the thoroughbred in the backfield, touches began to shift back in favor of Watson following the loss to Oklahoma State. Initially, the margin was minimal, as Ingram saw only eight fewer attempts than Watson throughout the next four games, but the workload shift proved especially apparent once the postseason arrived.

In the Big 12 title loss to Oklahoma and Sugar Bowl win over Georgia, Ingram received just 13 carries, while 31 carries went to Watson.

As a result, when it was all said and done, Ingram averaged just 10.9 carries per game and enjoyed more than 14 attempts only once. So while he was often times praiseworthy in his role running alongside Watson, who finished the year with 43 more carries, it’s unclear just how equipped Ingram is — physically speaking more so than any other obstacle — to assume responsibilities as the primary, if not feature back.

That said, there is a bit of evidence to that end, as Ingram was nothing short of a workhorse throughout his final two seasons among the high school ranks, amassing 4,569 yards and 69 touchdowns on 555 carries. But, of course, 4A high school football and Power 5 football require a drastically different level of physical development to survive day in and day out, which makes this offseason especially crucial for the 205-pound Ingram, and thus, the Longhorns.

On one hand, it’s an encouraging reality that Ingram was able to produce more with less, totaling 708 rushing yards — the third-most by any Texas back throughout the past five seasons — despite ranking 115th nationally in attempts.

But can Ingram maintain the same explosive consistency that allowed him to break free for 19 10-plus yard sprints as his obligations increase considerably?

The answer to that end — of course, considering his health and physical progression — should largely dictate whether or not Ingram’s sophomore season will see him blossom into the star-caliber call-carrier his skill set suggests he can become. In the meantime, with Ingram set to step into the starting role, another chore on Drayton’s to-do list includes developing a second back capable of shouldering a load similar to what Ingram absorbed in 2018.

Daniel Young appears to be the obvious option to that end, at least entering the spring, as Herman sounded less than convinced last week that the Horns will find another running back on the graduate transfer market.

In a running back room in which Ingram is suddenly the most seasoned option, Young is a close second. This new reality was hardly evident last season, as the sophomore was limited to a mere three carries per game. But it wasn’t all that long ago that Young capped his freshman campaign with five consecutive starts as the team’s top running back, a stretch that saw Young compile 286 rushing yards on 4.1 yards per attempt, in addition to 101 yards as a receiving option out of the backfield.

Of course, the following summer saw the arrivals of Watson and Ingram, which in turn saw Young slip to second and then third on the depth chart, and essentially out of the rotation. Going forward, though, touches are there for the taking, and Young’s imposing, in-between the tackles running style could prove to be an ideal complement to Ingram’s elusive nature. More notably, Young has already proven that he can be plenty productive with a workload similar to what Ingram adopted last season, just as he was during the final five-game stretch of the 2017 slate.

Ideally, bearing in mind the lack of established, experienced depth at the position, Texas would see Ingram comfortably shoulder 16-to-18 attempts per game, while another 10-to-12 are yielded to Young; potentially more for each if Texas wishes to preserve Ehlinger’s health.

Any depth beyond that is still to be determined, but Texas isn’t devoid of talent to that end, albeit considerably raw talent.

A finally-healthy Kirk Johnson is set to suit up for his final season on the Forty Acres, but despite his redshirt senior status, various knee, hamstring, and ankle injuries have limited Johnson to just 17 career games. More specifically as it pertains to his potential to impact the running back rotation, Johnson has recorded only eight career rush attempts; each of which came during the 2015 season.

In Johnson’s case, though, absence shouldn’t be mistaken for inability.

Ahead of the 2018 campaign, a source told The Football Brainiacs of Johnson, “When he’s healthy he’s one of the best backs on the team.”

Herman pointed preseason praise in Johnson’s direction, as well, saying, “He’s really talented, athletic, has tree trunks for legs, can move and cut and has some straight-line speed.”

Sheer talent hasn’t ever really been a question regarding Johnson — it’s always been about his health. At long last, the older brother of Longhorns star receiver Collin Johnson maintained his health in 2018, appearing in nine games on special teams. Should the injury bug stay away entering the spring and on into the summer and ultimately, the 2019 season, it’s quite possible, if not likely, that Johnson contributes in a role similar to that of Young last season when he saw 42 attempts.

Another name that could emerge and potentially shake things up throughout the spring? Jordan Whittington.

The five-star early enrollee arrived in Austin as the nation’s No. 2-ranked athlete prospect, trailing only USC-to-Texas transfer Bru McCoy, and was widely regarded as an elite slot receiver prospect. The praise and projections are plenty justifiable, but Whittington is at his best with the ball in his hands and Texas plans to put the ball in his hands out of the backfield.

Bearing in mind the Longhorns shortage of bodies at running back, the planned position change shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. But this isn’t Texas merely grasping at straws here.

Throughout his three-year varsity career with Cuero, Whittington averaged 10.9 yards per carry, totaling 1,436 yards and 23 touchdowns, and his most recent showing was his most substantial, as Whittington’s record-setting rushing performance guided the Gobblers to the Texas 4A Division II state title.

BON’s Joe Hamilton further detailed what Whittington brings to the table as a running back:

Whittington is one of the more aggressive and gutsy runners you’ll see when he has possession of the ball. His lighting quick-twitch lateral movement allows him to get upfield on defenses in a hurry. Because Whittington is such a violent runner, trying to arm tackle him is something that can lead to him picking up a substantial amount of yardage and thus, putting points on the board. It’s very seldom that you see the first man or one single defender stop Whittington.

Though depth is likely at the root of Whittington’s switch to running back, his dynamic nature as a rusher should at least allow him to make a dent in the running back reps this spring, especially if Johnson is unable to solidify a role in the rotation.

The Longhorns running back room should largely resemble last season, at least in the sense that it should be by committee without a bona fide headliner.

Ingram owns undeniable upside to that end, but how well he’s able to relish in the role remains to be seen, and will ultimately determine how the remaining reps are divided down the depth chart.

Editor’s note: Though Herman didn’t rule out a return to football for Derrian Brown last week, out of respect to his recovery process, we aren’t going to speculate about whether he’ll be able to return to the field at this time. He signed in December and planned to enroll in May.