A 'Major' Improvement

The Longhorns will go into the 2008 season without the fourth-leading rusher in school history, Jamaal Charles, but new Texas running backs coach Major Applewhite likes what he's seen from his running backs in the first few weeks of spring practice, especially in one department: Protecting the football.

"No fumbles. We've been fumble-free," Texas quarterback Colt McCoy proudly announced at the end of Wednesday's scrimmage.

According to both McCoy and Texas running backs coach Major Applewhite, no running backs, or McCoy for that matter, have let the ball hit the ground in spring, even after the pads came on and players started 'thudding.'

"We've had two scrimmages now and we've been taking care of the ball," said Applewhite. "We haven't had a turnover at our position. That's what we constantly preach to these guys, turnovers and explosives, and they've taken care of the ball and created explosives in the run game and the pass game."

Turnovers were a problem that plagued the Horns all of last season. McCoy threw 18 picks, more than doubling his total from his redshirt freshman year in 2006, and, while the Longhorns only gave away eight fumbles last year, they put 21 on the turf. On top of that, several of those eight fumbles lost came at key times in games.

It's an area that Texas, and especially its prolific starter, faced criticism in last year. It wasn't until midway through last season that the running game was viewed as a major strength, the obvious turnaround point being Jamaal Charles' 216-yard fourth quarter in a comeback win over Nebraska.

Now Charles is gone, his departure for the NFL a big blow to the Texas running game. Charles ran for 1,619 yards and 18 touchdowns (both 5th best single seasons in school history) last season and what he was known for the most was his speed in the open field. But Applewhite says that the running game can remain strong by focusing on the talents of each player.

"You don't replace a guy who runs a 10.2 in 100. You don't do it. You miss that type of speed, but you know backs are all different," said Applewhite. "We've had guys that are 5-11, 240, like Ricky (Williams) that have gone for over 1000 (yards). We've had guys that were 5-7, 180, like Hodges (Mitchell), who've gone for over 1000. Each back has his strengths."

The three running backs vying for the starting job, sophomore Vondrell McGee (5-10, 205), redshirt freshman Foswhitt Whittaker (5-10, 195) and senior Chris Ogbonnaya (6-1, 225), each bring something different to the table, but Whittaker sees that as a good thing.

"We all have different styles of running and we all play off of each other and try to work together. We're just filling to void for where Jamaal left and all three of us are trying to pick it up and bring something to the table," said Whittaker.

At the beginning of spring, Texas head coach Mack Brown said that McGee was entering practice as the top running back. McGee was third on the team in rushing last season with 297 yards, behind Charles' 1619 and McCoy's 492, and is the clear successor at this point, but Applewhite said that the depth chart is far from official.

"It's not to the point where we're wanting to say, 'This guy's No. 1 and this guy's No. 2.' We're wanting to keep all three hungry," said Applewhite. "You want all three to have a great 15 days of practice. You don't want them consumed with the depth chart, because we all are as players. We're all self-absorbed. We're all worried about 'Where am I?'...We'll sort that out when it's time."

He noted that players are concerned about their place on the depth chart and Applewhite, 29, chalked it up to the nature of young people like himself.

"It's our generation. We've got our own iPods, we've got our own iPhones. It's a self-absorbed generation," said Applewhite. "Those guys have got to understand the team concept."

Applewhite said that running back-by-committee is still an option he's considering employing.

"If we've got to play three (running backs) to win a game, we'll play three. If we've got to play one, we'll play one," said Applewhite. "They've got to understand that and there are standards at this place and winning is expected. You've got to give up yourself at this place. And they're doing a great job of that."

McGee echoed his coaches comments, saying that even if he's the starter, he's not worried about sharing the backfield with a pair of his teammates.

"I don't think it really matters if we have one guy or three guys, whatever the coaches think is best for the team is what we're going to do," said McGee.

The Longhorns are off from practice during spring break. Applewhite noted that he'll pay attention to how well the team is focused when it returns from the break, but McCoy said he's not worried and that the time off will be a very good thing for the Horns.

"We're fine. We're had such a good two weeks of practice that having a week of break will be good to let our bodies heal. We just have to come back and pick up right where we left off," said McCoy.

Texas returns to practice after the break and concludes spring drill with the Orange-White scrimmage on Saturday, March 29th.


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