2005 Position-By-Position Preview: RB

If Selvin Young stays healthy and if Ramonce Taylor stays hungry, Texas' running back situation won't be as iffy as some might think. The argument here is that the Longhorn offense could miss FB Will Matthews more than it will Cedric Benson.

It's a tall statement, considering Benson was Texas' second-leading all-time rusher and the sixth-best in NCAA history (5,540 yards). But, these days, a beefed-up Selvin Young (6-0, 230) is actually bigger than Cedric and has always been faster than the 2004 Doak Walker Award winner. RT is simply the speediest guy head Coach Mack Brown has ever fielded, plus Parade All-American RB Jamaal Charles heads a quartet of highly touted true freshmen who will stock the pantry when August camp starts next week.

The Horns are still pretty thin at FB where a walk-on currently tops the depth chart. The casual fan is more likely to recognize Ahmard Hall as the Marine Sergeant who carries the U.S. flag onto the field rather than the FB who has just one career carry (a one-yard TD plunge against North Texas in the 2004 season opener). Hall is a feel-good story and precisely the kind of young man you want wearing the Burnt Orange. The junior is tough-nosed and mature (a husband and a father, Hall turns 26 this November) but he'll be in a battle with converted LB Marcus Myers for the starting job. If spring drills are an indication, however, Texas will compensate for the lack of proven depth at FB by going with single-back and empty sets this fall. And a game won't go by without TE David Thomas logging snaps at FB or H-back.

Many of the preseason prognosticians have projected that Young and Taylor will split about 30 carries per game. I honestly believe Young will get the lion's share of the load (as the featured RB) while coaches will strive to get Taylor about a dozen touches per game (as an all-purpose back). As mentioned on several occasions, Young is more of the prototypical power back that Brown wants in his offense. (You may recall that Brown basically turned to Selvin instead of Benson for about half of the 2003 Cotton Bowl win over LSU when the rushing offense still could not move the chains in the fourth quarter. Young produced 49 total yards on 11 carries in that game while Benson managed 46 yards on 12 attempts during those pre-zone read days.)

Brown pretty much designated Young as the leading candidate to fill Benson's cleats. Young rushed for a career-best 102 yards and two TDs on 12 carries in that 65-0 route of North Texas before breaking his ankle the next Saturday at Arkansas. Following a medical redshirt year, Young returns this fall having rushed for 661 yards and 10 TDs in 26 career games.

Orangebloods may not even recognize Young, who has added 25-30 pounds of lean muscle to his frame since the day he signed as part of the 2002 recruiting class. (When I first met Selvin three seasons ago, I had him cast in the Hodges Mitchell mold based primarily on appearance. He is obviously taller than Hodges but I had Young projected as an east-west, scatback-type runner. But Young has spent the past ten months not only rehabbing the ankle and getting his grades in order, he has also gotten big. Not fat, but big. In fact, earlier this year a couple of beat reporters from two of the major dailies asked a UT Sports Information spokesman to identify a young man in street clothes standing across the field. Yep, it was Selvin. The point is that reporters who had known Selvin for years failed to recognize him because he just doesn't look the same.)

The biggest question is whether his injury-prone status will remain the same. Young has seen the past two seasons short-circuited with September mishaps, including a groin injury suffered at Rice during his sophomore campaign. Last year's broken ankle sidelined Young just six quarters into 2004, an injury that was especially damaging to Texas' special teams. Just days after Brown named Young his kick returner and his top punt return specialist, the coach admitted the double-duty was a departure from his standard MO. Brown couldn't stand the thought that a single injury might torpedo two positions, but Young was just too explosive to remove from either component of the return game. With Young idling on the sideline in his electric wheelchair, the punt return game remained stuck in neutral, averaging just 7.33 ypr (NCAA No. 85). The KO return game didn't fare much better, averaging 19.5 ypc (NCAA No. 69).

All told, Young boasts 1,622 career all-purpose yards (8.9 yards per play). It appears that Taylor, plus freshmen Quan Cosby and Jerrell Wilkerson, will be counted on to tote the mail as return specialists but it begs the question: can Young can stay healthy for the first time in three seasons? We can't count on it because it hasn't happened, Brown said previously. That's no small part of the reason why RT remained in the backfield every day of spring drills, which was not the coaches' original intent. Brown wanted RT to audition at RB and then move to WR during the final two weeks of the spring. Converted WR Chris Ogbonnaya, while generally solid by spring's end, did not impress enough during his transition to unseat Taylor. RT successfully met two of Brown's main criteria for the starting job: he could pass-protect (coaches sent waves of blitzing linebackers at him during the final days of spring drills) and he could hold on to the football.

Taylor has been clocked at just under 4.3 and is the fastest player Brown has ever coached. He rushed for 283 yards on just 27 carries (that's a 10.5 ypc average) and one TD. Earlier this year, Texas coaches conferred with former Southern Cal Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow about (among other things) the way to best way to utilize a 5-11, 195-pound speed demon like RT. What we've got is the makings of Texas' version of USC's Heisman finalist Reggie Bush. In fact, Taylor joins Bush and teammate Vince Young as the only D-I players to register a rush, a pass and a reception of more than 40 yards last season. But RT entered the off-season affirming that he wanted to play RB and that he's going to approach August camp as if the spot is his to lose.

With Young's health/academic woes and Erik Hardeman's dismissal from the team, the running back situation went from "as good as it's been to as bad as I've seen it" virtually overnight, Brown previously said as he reflected upon last season. That's why the eighth-year Texas coach replenished his RB cabinet this past recruiting season. Charles is the offensive jewel of the smallish class of 14 and gave Horn fans a glimpse of things to come with his MVP performance at the annual Texas High School Coaches Association All-Star game last Tuesday in San Antonio. He rushed for a team-best 98 yards on 20 carries. But his most impressive play was his scoring run off of the 31-yard screen pass from QB Ryan Mullins. Charles patiently allowed the lead blocking to materialize before he darted past two would-be tacklers and capped the play by diving into the left corner of the end zone from three yards out. Charles (6-1, 190) rushed for 4,107 yards and 50 touchdowns during his last two seasons at Port Arthur Memorial. The two-time Texas 5A all-state pick has participated in voluntary summer drills at Denius Field.

Grapevine RB Henry Melton will get a look at RB, even though the 6-3, 270-pounder would help shore up the depth if he made the move to FB. Coaches will give Melton a tryout at TB this fall simply because the freshman has never backed away from his expressed desire to play there. ("He's going to stay there until he proves to us that he's not that guy," Brown said last week.)

Two-time first-team 5A All-State selection Jerrell Wilkerson (5-8, 180) could be as close to an athlete of Eric Metcalf's caliber (1985-89) that the Horns have seen in the past two decades. Wilkerson, who rushed for a San Antonio city record 7,249 yards (easily eclipsing Priest Holmes' old mark), is listed as an 'athlete' whose immediate impact should be on special teams.

Freshman RB Michael Houston graduated early from Denver Montbello to participate in spring drills at Texas. The honorable mention 5A All-State selection, from what we could see, looked every bit like a high schooler among more season athletes. But his presence on the Forty Acres last spring gave Brown another ball carrier and acclimated Houston to D-I football before his class arrived.

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