Strengths: Since the day that he stepped foot on the Forty Acres, Ike's most tantalizing ability has been his speed. We're talkin' break-away, take-it-to-the-house speed. And in his three seasons at UT (he redshirted as a true freshman), he has teased Longhorn fans with flashes of that game-breaking potential. He took a swing pass out of the backfield in the '99 season opener vs. NC State and took it 80 yards for a TD (see photo right). In his best rushing game as a Longhorn, he gained 30 of his 94 rushing yards by jukin' a Rutgers defender out of his Jockeys and scampering into the end zone in early '99. Against Stanford last fall, the then-sophomore tailback motioned out of the backfield and up the left sideline where Major Applewhite found him in stride for a 38-yard score that (briefly) gave the Horns a fourth quarter lead over the Cardinal. And he also ended UT's 22-year kickoff return TD drought with a 93-yard score against Oregon in the Holiday Bowl and returned another kickoff 81 yards against Oklahoma. Overall, he's scored 11 TDs (nine rushing, two receiving) on just 111 regular season, non-return-game touches.
Weaknesses: You'll notice in the section above that (so far) only one of Ike's big-time plays has been a running play, and that came over 20 games ago in game No. 3 of his redshirt freshman season. Since that game, he has totaled just 254 regular season rushing yards, 156 of those coming last fall. Coming out of the backfield as a receiver, matched up against opposing LBs or safeties, he's deadly (although the coaches successfully called his number just twice last season as a receiver). In deep return on kickoffs, watch out. Taking a handoff in the backfield, well, he simply hasn't shown enough to have confidence that he can be a consistently productive runner, particularly when that run is between the tackles. As Mack Brown said during spring, "the thing he needs to do is become a better four-yard runner, and that's run better behind his pads and be a little bit more patient."
Analysis: The key to Ike's success seems to be getting the speedster into the open field. In spring, Ike continued to impress when running outside of the tackles and when catching the ball in the flat and turning it up-field. He has great lateral movement and has demonstrated (in practice) the ability to slash through a defense, but until he shows some sort of consistent ability on game day to match his on-the-edge threat with at least a semblance of success running up-the-gut, he will be at best a situational (or rotating) back lest the Horns risk forsaking their short-yardage running game.
Second team: Brett Robin, Sophomore
Strengths: He is solid in every phase of his running back responsibilities. Despite a lack of flash, Robin displayed a surprising knack for picking up yardage, particularly on the draw play, during spring practice. Matter of fact, simply looking at production, he was the top spring back. He is strong for a 5-11, 190-pounder. He blocks well (at least partially attributable to his stint last fall as a fullback). And he takes care of the ball, seldom fumbling or dropping a pass.
Weaknesses: He is not spectacular in the area -- running the ball -- that the team most needs spectacular ability at the tailback spot. The Texas head coach has often talked about fielding players who can score from anywhere on the field. With that mindset, it's imperative that at the very least a team's offensive skill position players (WRs and RBs) are a TD threat. Robin is not.
Analysis: Despite his solid spring performance, he is not the long-term answer to the Horns' tailback woes. Matter of fact, the move to tailback from fullback didn't suddenly make Robin faster, just like his time at fullback didn't make him bigger. In an offense that utilized its fullback more as an offensive threat (as a runner and as a receiver), the well-rounded Robin would be a perfect fullback fit even given his small size. Texas, of course, does not utilize its fullback in that way. So he will play tailback this fall, and he should play this fall. He's earned that much. But on a championship-level team, Robin is best suited as a role player, or utility man, at both running back positions, not competing for a starting job at tailback.
Co-third team: Kenny Hayter, Junior
Strengths: He has the ability to be both a power and finesse runner, and he has the vision to find the holes.
Weaknesses: Those scouting report strengths, so evident in his high school career, have seldom shown themselves in game situations. Hayter has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in his UT career, and his longest run from scrimmage in 93 attempts is a pedestrian 18 yards. Aside from his one flash of brilliance last fall (122 yards on 20 carries against Oklahoma State), he's been more likely to get stopped for no-gain than go for five yards, much less 25. Fumble problems have also plagued Hayter. And the fumbles may have led to a more dangerous malady: lack of confidence (both in his mind and in the minds of the coaches).
Analysis: Time is running short for this junior running back. He has the physical talent. The question remains; can he translate that talent into performance? Two-a-days may be his final realistic shot to step up and earn serious playing time. Once the season starts, barring injury, the guys near the top of the depth chart generally stay there. And the coaches are much more likely to give practice snaps to a third-string (and rising) freshman or sophomore than a third-string (and plateaued) junior.
Co-third team: Ivan Williams, Sophomore
Strengths: He is big (6-1, 235-plus-pounds) and fast (he once ran a 4.4 forty on grass), a lethal combination that none of the other returning backs battling at tailback possess.
Weaknesses: Like with Hayter, Ivan's seemingly all-star abilities haven't translated into game performance, although Williams has had more success on the practice field than Hayter. Matter of fact, at this time last year, Williams looked to be the second-coming of Ricky Williams after a standout redshirt practice season and an amazing spring. By last August and two-a-days, though, Ivan's bull dozer running style had suddenly turned tentative, and it has seldom been seen since. He also seems to run stiff, with little flexibility to cut or move laterally to find a hole.
Analysis: That same description in the last sentence above once fit Hodges Mitchell, and he certainly improved during his days at DKR. Perhaps Williams will as well. Or perhaps Williams is the type of player who saves his best stuff for Saturday afternoon rather than Tuesday evening at practice. He didn't get much of an opportunity last fall to see the field (13 carries for 57 yards, 4.4 per tote). To see it much this fall, Williams, like Hayter, probably needs to alert the coaches to his presence in August.
Fourth team: Sneezy Beltran, Redshirt freshman
Strengths: Beltran has the skills to be a contributor -- great vision, cutting ability, good hands, toughness.
Weaknesses: Experience. He has none. And he didn't exactly run free through the defense this spring.
Analysis: It's too early to tell where Beltran will fit in this fall. During spring, Brown mentioned several times that the redshirt freshman was a bit behind the other backs in his knowledge of the offense. And he was inconsistent. All that could change in August, and if so, Beltran could find himself in not only the heat of the Texas summer sun, but in the heat of the starting running back battle as well.
Wildcard: Cedric Benson, True freshman
Analysis: The fate of all the guys listed above may lie with the true freshman from Midland Lee. With none of the five tailbacks stepping it up in spring, at least not to a comfortable starting level, the stage is set for Benson to take a starring role. A word of caution when projecting Benson's impact, though, is in order. Last fall, UT had arguably two of the best true freshman wide receivers in the country, and they both played a big role in the Horns' offensive success (and, at times, failure). But their contributions were somewhat erratic and inconsistent, particularly early in the season. And wide receiver is probably the easiest position in the UT offense to make an immediate impact. Tailback, although easier than say, QB, is a tougher spot at Texas than almost anywhere else in the country because of what the UT coaches expect their tailbacks to do aside from carry the football. Remember Marcus Houston, last year's early-season stud true freshman back up at Colorado (who picked the Buffs over the Horns)? Odds are, if he would have chosen to wear the Orange and White, he wouldn't have seen the field often, if at all, early last season despite his since proven abilities in Boulder. Same goes for Benson barring an accelerated learning curve. Plus, with Chris Simms and the great group of pass catchers in the Orange and White, the Horns are essentially a passing team that runs the ball, not vice versa. Thus, along with the ability to run the football, which Cedric certainly seems quite able, he must also be able to quickly learn the Texas offense and specifically the tailback's blocking assignments. If he does so, he will play and play often. If not, his time will be limited because the staff is not going to forego the passing game to continually feed the ball to Benson and they're certainly not going to risk the health of Simms (or Applewhite) while blitzers consistently blow by a confused true freshman RB. With all that said, I do believe it will be hard for the Texas coaches to keep Benson off the field early on (given his talent level and the lack of a stand-out amongst the returners), and by mid-season I expect Cedric to be part of a running back rotation that will also include Ike and possibly one other back. He's simply that good.
Probable Redshirts: True freshman Anthony Johnson