At one point considered a strength, at least in terms of depth, the Longhorns have seen two of their original top three backs hobbled by injuries. Cody Johnson, Texas's week one starter, suffered an ankle injury on his second carry and hasn't been the same. Tré Newton, Johnson's replacement, suffered a hip pointer and hasn't played the last two weeks.
But both Fozzy Whittaker and newly minted running back D.J. Monroe have had their bright spots.
Whittaker leads the Longhorns with 234 rushing yards at an impressive five yards a pop. He's finally healthy and has been able to show off some of the promise he hinted at earlier in his career. While not a pounder, Whittaker is a big-play threat and can make plays in space.
Monroe can top that. Since moving to running back before the UCLA game, Monroe has rushed 10 times for 116 yards. He brings elite-level speed and acceleration to the running back spot, and he's a home run threat every time he touches the ball, as he showed with a 60-yard touchdown burst against Oklahoma. The staff would like to use Monroe more, though the sophomore needs to work on his blocking to see more field time.
Johnson did show some good things against Oklahoma, hauling in a pass for 33 yards and pounding for a five-yard touchdown. Coaches felt that Johnson had the ability to be an every-down back before the season started, and Texas coach Mack Brown said Johnson's ankle injury robbed him a bit of his burst. At worst, Johnson is an excellent short-yardage back who can pound away at defenses late in the fourth quarter.
If he's healthy, he gives Texas another player to add to the rotation, and could be the closest thing to a complete back that Texas has.
Without Johnson at full health, Texas has struggled to convert on short running situations. On first and 10, backs like Whittaker and Monroe are dynamos. When facing third-and-short situations, the two diminutive speedsters are less than ideal. When healthy, Newton can help as well. Despite his lack of great size, Newton has the vision and cut-back ability to find the small gaps needed to move the chains.
Texas's backs all bring something different to the fold, which has some value, though Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis has said that he would rather have one back capable of performing all the team's duties. That runner doesn't appear to be on roster, however, and might not arrive until blue chipper Malcolm Brown arrives in 2011. Traylon Shead, who is redshirting this year, should be another intriguing option.
Overall grade: B-
Texas was forced to abandon its plans for a power running game based in large part on injuries suffered to the unit. Still, even when fully healthy, Texas's group lacks an every-down back who can do everything the offense requires. This grade probably jumped up a letter in the past two weeks because of the play of Whittaker and Monroe. Monroe, especially, gives this group the ability to score from anywhere on the field.