At the end of the season, Texas again found its feature back, and again it was Johnson. But in-between, the Longhorns used a combination of Johnson, Fozzy Whittaker, Tré Newton, D.J. Monroe and Ryan Roberson.
The forever whirling depth chart — Texas started three different backs in each of its first three games — was the result of a mishmash of injuries and varying results of play.
Johnson injured his ankle on his second carry of the season, an 18-yard burst for a first down. He spent much of the year recovering from that injury, pounding Nebraska into submission late with 11 carries for 73 yards, then putting up Texas's only two 100-yard efforts in the season's last two games. He rushed for 124 yards and a touchdown against Florida Atlantic and 107 yards against Texas A&M, averaging 5.5 yards per carry over those two matchups. Johnson finished the year as Texas's top rusher with 592 yards, as well as its top touchdown-maker, scoring six times.
Between Johnson's strong periods, the Longhorns focused mostly on Whittaker, who was fighting a recurring shoulder stinger. According to Texas coach Mack Brown, Whittaker's shoulder would be fine until he sustained a hit to the wrong spot, forcing him from the game. But Whittaker still gutted out 351 yards and two touchdowns on 80 carries, and caught 34 passes, third best on the Longhorn squad.
A sophomore, Newton was the other starter, and was actually Texas's leading rusher in 2009. But he suffered a concussion against Texas Tech, then another one later in the season and decided to give up football. That meant that the Longhorns gave more carries to a recovering Johnson and Roberson, a linebacker converted to fullback. Roberson finished with seven carries for 29 yards and two touchdowns. Those same injuries forced the staff to move the bulky Chris Whaley back to running back from H-back, though Whaley didn't receive a carry.
The Longhorns also used D.J. Monroe at times. A diminutive running back switched to wide receiver, Texas moved him back to running back to supply big-play ability, which he did in averaging 8.5 yards per carry over his 23 carries, including a 60-yard touchdown run against Oklahoma. Unfortunately, Monroe was a non-factor in the passing game, where he struggled at blocking, and he also turned the ball over multiple times.
All of those backs — with the exception of the aforementioned Newton — will be back in 2011, with what will hopefully be a better bill of health. With a strong spring, Johnson can cement his spot as the top back … at least until blue-chipper Malcolm Brown arrives. More on that later.
The players to watch will be Monroe and Whaley. Monroe will likely see the ball in some respect; he's one of the Longhorns' most explosive players. And he'll be spending his first full offseason at running back, giving him a better chance to make an impact.
Whaley, meanwhile, was pushed out of the running back race because of his ballooning weight. Does he take the offseason to trim weight, or does Whaley, who is now 6-foot-3 and more than 250 pounds, look at a position change, either to H-back or to a spot like defensive end? Even at 245-plus, he rushed for four yards per carry in last season's spring game, and he has the talent to make an impact if he can just keep his weight down.
Another player to watch is freshman Traylon Shead, who redshirted in 2010. A slashing runner with a nice combination of size and speed, Shead received good reviews for his work on the scout team. He's the second-leading rusher in Texas high school history, and is somewhat of a rarity on the team in that he's a balanced back, while runners like Johnson, Whaley, Roberson, Whittaker and Monroe are somewhat one-dimensional.
2011 Commitments: Malcolm Brown, 6-1 224, Cibolo Steele; Joe Bergeron, 5-11 230, North Mesquite
The Longhorns needed an immediate impact back to at worst step into the rotation, and there might not be a bigger impact back in this class than Brown, Scout.com's No. 1 running back in the country. Even if it didn't happen immediately, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Brown overtake both Johnson and Whittaker to become the Longhorns' lead back. He's just that good, and combines outstanding power with wonderful strength, vision, balance and deceptive speed. In short, he's a complete back, the type that can absorb 25-35 carries a game and wear down defenses. Bergeron might be the top fullback prospect in this class as well. An outstanding short-yardage runner, Bergeron also boasts nice athleticism for a 230-plus pound back. He might not fit in right away with Roberson ahead of him, and with Johnson and Brown to eat short-yardage carries, but he's a great prospect at a need position who could score — and block for — a lot of touchdowns in his Longhorn career.
Future Outlook: It will be interesting to see how many backs the Longhorns pursue in the 2012 class with the absence of Newton, who was set to be a senior on the 2012 roster. Johnson and Whittaker are seniors, while Monroe is a junior, Shead a redshirt freshman and Brown a true freshman. That means Texas will likely need at least two backs in the 2012 class, if they don't keep Whaley at running back or move somebody else to the position. The one sure thing appears to be that the Longhorns will go all guns blazing for Johnathan Gray, and with good reason. Gray will likely be the top back in the 2012 class and brings an element of explosion that would allow him to pair seamlessly with Brown in the Longhorn backfield.