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With healthy options on the way, Texas’ depth at RB suddenly isn’t an issue

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Keaontay Ingram continues to improve. Roschon Johnson looks the part. And now, a once-battered running back room is getting healthier each week.

Oklahoma State v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

There was a time in the not too distant past in which it appeared as if the Texas Longhorns running back room would become its Achilles heel this season. This wasn’t due to a lack of quality talent on paper, by any means, but the injury bug ensured that the cupboards became quite bare, even before the season ever began.

Senior Kirk Johnson became the first domino to fall in early August, with a severe shoulder sprain sidelining him for at least six weeks. Two weeks later, third-string running back Daniel Young joined him on the sidelines with a high ankle sprain, which ultimately led to true freshman third-string quarterback Roschon Johnson transitioning to become Texas’ third-string running back during the final week of fall camp. Following his first appearance in that role, Johnson was promoted to the first back off the bench, as fellow true freshman and second-string running back Jordan Whittington went down with a torn adductor muscle in the season opener.

“Your two tailbacks are Keaontay Ingram and Roschon Johnson,” Herman said with the news of Whittington’s injury.

This, in turn, led to another position change — this time around, true freshman linebacker David Gbenda moving roles to take reps as Texas’ third-team running back.

To say there was cause for concern at the front end of the 2019 campaign would be a fairly significant understatement, as Texas was just one minor ailment to starting ball-carrier Keaontay Ingram away from thrusting a freshman-quarterback-turned-running-back, one who hadn’t played exclusively at running back since he was in fifth grade, into what would essentially be a feature back role out of necessity.

Suddenly, though, not all seems so bleak.

Though he didn’t see the field last Saturday during Texas’ 36-30 win over Oklahoma State, Young recently returned to the rotation, adding not only much-needed depth, but a short-yardage option and quite arguably Texas’ best pass-blocking running back into the mix. That healthy trio is now set to add another body, as Tom Herman said on Monday that Kirk Johnson is on track to be cleared for the West Virginia game following Texas’ bye week.

Similarly, Herman said on Wednesday that Whittington hasn’t suffered any setbacks and is on pace to return to the rotation in the near future.

“Best case scenario would probably be the week after West Virginia,” Herman said. “Worst case scenario would be a week or two after that.”

Maybe more notable is that save for the sheer security of having the healthy options available should Texas need them, the Horns have fared just fine with Ingram and Johnson.

Ingram, who’s fresh off of a career showing against Oklahoma State, ranks fifth among all Big 12 running backs with 295 yards to date. He’s only received 55 carries through four games, largely because the Longhorns have found their stride through the air with Sam Ehlinger performing at a Heisman-caliber level, but Ingram has typically made the most of his touches, with 10 of his attempts going for at least 10 yards and nearly a third (17) finishing with a first down.

And Ingram appears to only be getting better each week.

He’s proven especially valuable as a receiver out of the backfield, as well, with his 11 receptions ranking third on the team and tied for second among all Big 12 backs, while his 120 receiving yards all but matches the contributions of the closest in-conference competition at his position, with West Virginia’s Kennedy McKoy and Texas Tech’s Ta’Zhawn Henry combining for 122 yards on 27 catches.

Much of the same praise can be pointed in the direction of Ingram’s reserve, Roschon Johnson.

Though his raw numbers aren’t overwhelming on the surface, as he’s turned his 34 attempts into 147 yards and one score, Johnson runs with an apparent purpose, burst, and decisiveness, perhaps even more so than Ingram, which supports Herman’s previous sentiments that Johnson has taken to the position change like a fish takes to water.

That much has been evident on film thus far; so much so that there’s reason to believe that Johnson’s future may very well be at running back.

However, that reality, along with the reality that the Longhorns are adding healthy running backs back into the mix, seemingly on a weekly basis, meant that it was time for him and Herman to have a conversation.

Johnson’s long-term position remains to be seen — that’s a discussion for the offseason — but with four games to his name, Johnson had to decide whether to return to quarterback to retain his redshirt, or remain in the running back role he’s so quickly adapted to, even if only for the remainder of the season.

“I said, ‘Hey, kid. This is your decision. This is your career, but we’re at the point where we’ve gotta make a decision,’” Herman said. “He said ‘Am I still going to be able to help the team?”

“Absolutely,” Herman answered.

So, Johnson will remain at running back for the West Virginia game, and though Whittington solidified himself as the team’s second-best running back throughout the spring, summer, and fall camp, Johnson’s early-season efforts will likely require Whittington to re-compete those reps once he returns.

Interestingly enough, given Johnson’s emergence at running back, he may actually prove capable of fending Whittington off and maintaining his role as Texas’ second-best option at running back, especially considering that Whittington who won’t return until the sixth, if not seventh game of the season. And if not, then a talent in Johnson who has already earned plenty of praise from his coaches and teammates alike and certainly looks the part at running back will add quality depth as the third option in a room that had only two healthy bodies two weeks ago.