Remember 2010, when the Longhorns shuttled between feature backs because 1) they didn't have a true feature back and 2) injuries? Now, Texas might switch off feature backs for a different reason: Applewhite has recruited a stacked backfield full of potential top-line guys.
"Right now we have two starters with Joe [Bergeron] and Malcolm [Brown]. Those guys are rotating frequently," Applewhite said. "Jeremy [Hills] and Johnathan [Gray] have their packages right now.
"Obviously, when you're dealing with a freshman coming in that's been given the ball 20-30 times, the thing is that those guys typically lack, from the high school to college levels, is all the situational football," Applewhite said. "Third downs. One-minute drives. Four-minute drives. Trying to take the air out of the ball in the game. All the nuances that you've got to do in terms of staying in bounds, getting out of bounds, what you're seeing on third downs, how you're seeing things in the red zone. So that's kind of how we're rotating those guys right now."
So, if the season kicked off today, who would handle the third-down situational role?
"Jeremy, because he's been in that situation so much, could help us in that third-down role," Applewhite said. "Joe and Malcolm have had so many at-bats that they could play that third-down role as well. A true freshman, I mean I have never heard of anybody saying, 'I can't wait to get my true freshman in on third down and pass protect.' So I don't think that is going to happen right off of the bat. But [Gray] is a guy that can make space plays, can catch the ball in the screen game, and as he becomes more familiar and more comfortable with protections, which he is each and every day, we can start to slide him into that role. That's what we're looking at right now."
Rotating players through, depending on the situation, could become a common theme this year.
When you look at the last, let's say 15 years, go back to '98 and '97, only about five or six of those teams have really had thousand-yard backs," Applewhite said. "Most of those guys have had your 500-to-700 yard backs, and there have been three of them. You look at Alabama, they had a great Heisman Trophy guy that was over 1,000, but if you go back and look over the span it's a conglomeration of two or three backs that have stayed fresh throughout the year."So however we get the production, it doesn't really matter," Applewhite said. "If we had a 2,000 yard back that'd be great. But that's just not what we're in for. That's not how the game is played anymore. You don't snap the ball 55 times. You're snapping the ball 75-85 times a game. You're going no-huddle. You're getting multiple snaps. You need two, three, four guys at that position. I visited with a guy from Carolina in the offseason two years ago, he started six different tailbacks during the course of a season. I was sweating because I had started four. He started six. It's a brutal game. It's a physical game. Those guys are taking about three shots a play. So we've got to have more than one. "
Applewhite said he kept an eye on how other schools employed multiple running backs for ideas.
"[I'm] kust looking at how you rotate those guys as a big picture," Applewhite said. "You look at a 'one-two-three' back. Your 'one' and your 'three' are going to be the same guy. They're the guys that play on first and second down. Your 'two' is your changeup back that comes in on third down, space situations, loose plays. So you're rotating those guys in those manners. And then you hide your tendencies. You play your 'one-threes' on loose space plays. You play your 'two' guy on some run downs. So you're able to hide your tendencies. That's what we're looking at. So if you were just taking a look at our backs, Joe would be our 'one' and Malcolm would be our 'three,' or vice versa. Rotate them as you go throughout the game. And your change-of-pace back is Jeremy or Johnathan.
"You've got to have knowledge of the game to be able to handle that type of situation," Applewhite said. "And then you've got to understand that's how it works. You've got to be a selfless player, and you've got to have knowledge of the game. Those guys, fortunately enough, are knowledgeable on how the game works, and then they're smart enough and good enough people to make it work. Thank God we don't have anybody in there that is sour and bitter and hard to deal with. That's the best part about it. They understand the game, number one. And they're all good, solid people to begin with."
Applewhite described the need to share the ball with a talented group of running backs.
It's a situation where your tailback is a guy that's carried the ball from Pop Warner to junior high, all the way through high school," Applewhite said. "He's going to have that big ego. He's a great player, we all know it. We were always mad because they tossed it to him instead of us in peewee. But he ran all the way around everybody, and then he gets to college and he's sitting in a room with four other guys that did the same thing. So you've got to kind of balance those egos."I'll point up on the wall and say, 'See that guy? He didn't start until he was a junior because that guy right there, Priest Holmes, was a starter. So he had to wait his turn,'" Applewhite said. "And you've got to understand that. In the flow of the game we'll all need each other. We need to play throughout the game. And those guys get that. They understand it. And they also pay attention to the NFL. They see these NFL backs that get beat down. They get worn out and shot out of the league in three-four years. And that's not where their head is, but they understand that for us to win all of our games and for them to be the type of players they need to be, that there needs to be a rotation. There needs to be sharing."