Texas Longhorns early enrollee Jordan Whittington was supposed to be an ideal fit in the slot, potentially the perfect replacement for departed star Lil’Jordan Humphrey. But once the former five-star All-American athlete arrived in Austin, his role switched almost immediately.
These days, Whittington is getting the ball out of the backfield.
Of course, depth in the running back room, or the lack thereof following the offseason transfers of Toneil Carter, Kyle Porter, and Tristian Houston, prompted the position change, but Whittington has wasted no time justifying the decision by Texas head coach Tom Herman and associate head coach/running backs coach Stan Drayton.
At the front end of spring practice, Herman noted that Whittington looked natural at running back before magnifying that praise on Wednesday.
“Fast enough,” Herman said when asked how fast Whittington is. “I don’t know if he’s track fast. [Devin Duvernay] would probably beat him in a 100, but I think what makes him difficult for the defense is there’s no wasted movement. It doesn’t take him seven steps to change direction. It’s boom, boom, boom, and accelerate. He’s got great patience and he’s just really smooth.”
"What makes him difficult for the defense is that there's no wasted movement. It doesn't take him seven steps to change direction... He's just really smooth." -- Tom Herman on Jordan Whittington— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) April 5, 2019
And here is the supporting evidence.#HookEm pic.twitter.com/iJQh7WofJU
“For him to look and feel that comfortable back there through eight or nine practices having played that position...” Herman added. “And he grinds, he’s a worker in the film room, he’s a worker in meetings. He likes ball.”
In fairness, this spring isn’t exactly Whittington’s first time at running back.
After missing the first four games of his final stint as Cuero’s do-it-all star last season due to a groin injury, Whittington totaled 846 yards on 59 attempts — good for 14.3 yards per carry — and 14 touchdowns. A solid chunk of those stats came as part of a record-setting showing in the 4A Division II state title game, as Whittington scampered his way to 334 yards and five touchdowns en route to Offensive and Defensive MVP honors.
And this was all in addition to the 948 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns Whittington amassed along the way in his primary role as a wide out.
“That’s my boy,” sophomore Keaontay Ingram said of Whittington Tuesday, per Inside Texas’ Joe Cook. “Jordan, he’s going to be the real deal in the future. He could still go play wide receiver if he wanted to.”
The kind of versatility the well-built 6’1, 215-pound Whittington boasts — the same versatility that prompted praise from his new running mate at running back and prompted 247Sports to list Whittington as one of the top 10 playmakers in the 2019 class — could ultimately help fulfill Herman’s hope of operating outside of 11 personnel more often than the Horns have since his arrival.
Seldom have we seen Texas utilize 10 personnel (1 RB, 4 WR) throughout the previous two seasons, but Whittington’s elite lateral quickness, shiftiness in open space, and pass-catching prowess should afford Texas the option to slot him outside as a second slot receiver, opposite of Joshua Moore, Bru McCoy, Jake Smith, or whomever, stretching the field even further with another explosive weapon.
Think about Whittington running routes against a linebacker and visions of explosive plays inevitably follow.
The 20 personnel package (2 RB, 3 WR) or 21 personnel grouping (2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE) could become intriguing options, as well, with Whittington positioned alongside Ingram or Kirk Johnson or Daniel Young in the backfield.
With the build of a much older player and a team-first mindset, Whittington has the potential to quickly become a strong blocker. Ingram and Young have already proved their ability in those areas and could serve as the lead blockers for Whittington.
Running some triple option plays might be unlikely, but there is an analogue — sending one of the running backs into the field behind potential blockers to put box defenders into conflict.
But although they could become an added luxury for a Longhorns offense that’s suddenly loaded, specialized packages certainly aren’t necessary for Whittington to see the field. In Austin, that fit happens to be in an undermanned backfield, and to that end, Burnt Orange Nation’s Joe Hamilton previously detailed the skill set that’s allowed Whittington to transition to running back so smoothly this spring:
The [high school] All-American is one of the more aggressive and gutsy runners you’ll see when he has possession of the ball. His lightning 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. His build is extremely impressive and has been for quite some time.
In a four-man running back room, all of those attributes have paved the way for Whittington to emerge from the bottom of the totem pole already, earning third-team, and sometimes second-team reps this spring behind Ingram and Johnson. Ingram, of course, basically has the starting spot solidified, but Whittington has wasted no time making his place felt in the pecking order.
As the tweet suggests, Whittington is the future, and the early returns suggest that the future is now.