Ask anybody for the Longhorns' strengths heading into 2013, and they would probably have mentioned the running backs first.
And why not? In Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, the Longhorns had three running backs who had topped the 500-yard mark within the last two seasons, while all three put up 100-plus-yard games in 2012.
Of course, much of the focus on the three also honed in on their offseasons. Gray entered the spring and fall camp looking like a totally different player, carrying his 207 pounds well and running with more explosion. Brown always had the talent, but the question about him always centered around his injuries. As both a freshman and a sophomore, Brown appeared to hit his stride JUST before suffering a nagging ailment that kept him from reaching top potential. And Bergeron made a big deal about dropping 20 or so pounds, largely by cutting out the Hostess products.
Not surprisingly, the running back position has performed. Perhaps surprisingly, that performance has largely come via a one-man show. Naturally, media members asked coach Mack Brown whether there were enough carries to go around, but Gray's emergence (more on this in a second) and another nagging injury for Brown meant that Gray had plenty of touches. In fact, so far this season, he leads the Big 12 with 111 carries, four more than Kansas workhorse James Sims.
He's earned them. Gray has 562 rushing yards through six games, second-best in the conference to Baylor's Lache Seastrunk. He's second (again to Seastrunk) with 102 total yards per game, if you take out backs who return kicks.* And it's especially impressive given that Gray hardly saw the ball (six carries for 28 yards) in the opener against New Mexico State).
* Kansas's Tony Pierson lines up at wide receiver last year. He was a running back a year ago.
Since then, Gray has averaged 21 carries and 106.8 yards per game, hitting 89 or more yards in each of the last five contests and scoring four touchdown over his last four games. Gray's performance has allowed Texas to rank among the Big 12's elite rushing offenses, averaging 202.7 rushing yards per game despite an inconsistency in stretching the field in the passing game.
Brown's injury came earlier this year, though he has also shown flashes of health of late. In the first game, he showcased his value out of the backfield by catching three passes for 109 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown jaunt down the sideline. And against Oklahoma, Brown looked like his old healthy self, running 23 times for 109 yards and providing an excellent change of pace, the hammer to Gray's quickness.
Despite the size and speed difference, Gray and Brown do share some traits that make them ideal fits for the Texas zone running game. Both are fantastic one-cut runners with great vision and feet. And both have that subtle ability to twist and fall away from contact to gain extra yards after meeting the defender.
Bergeron unfortunately, hasn't been able to get on track. His primary strengths are his ability to move a pile and wear down defenses, powers that he displayed while rushing for 567 yards and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore. But this year, Bergeron has just one game where he went over 40 yards — a 79-yard effort against New Mexico State — to his credit, while he's shown a disturbing fumbling trend. That has always been a bit of a risk with Bergeron (witness last year's victory at Oklahoma State), but he's lost fumbles on each of his last two carries, and didn't touch the ball again after fumbling it away on his only carry of the Oklahoma game. A power back who aids in keeping possession isn't of much use if he gives possession away.
And while it was late in the season-opener, Texas might have discovered a back for the future. Jalen Overstreet, a former quarterback, wowed coaches with his size (215-plus pounds) and his speed (sub-4.5) in the offseason, then he put both on display against New Mexico State, rushing nine times for 92 yards and two touchdowns, including a 38-yard burst. It's tough sledding to find time ahead of three such established backs, but as a redshirt freshman, and with both Brown and Bergeron playing out their junior seasons, his time will come.
Alex De La Torre has quietly had a nice season as a fullback. He's not going to be a Trey Millard type who gets a bunch of touches as a primary weapon in the offense. But he performs more than capably in his role as a lead blocker. Not only has he shown the physical ability to mash on opposing linebackers — he mowed down Oklahoma's Dominique Alexander this past weekend on a third-and-short play that Texas converted — he's smart and has the football IQ to decide whom to block.
Texas is helped, at least somewhat, at that position because of Texas's tendency to do two things: 1) employ either Brown or Bergeron in a fullback type role (Gray has even thrown a few effective run blocks this fall) and 2) deploy tight end Geoff Swaim as more of a fullback/H-back to take advantage of his ability to block out of motion.