When Texas came into the Big 12, there was little doubt the way the pigskin was going. Despite some capable passers at the time, Texas always seemed to have the most success on the ground, behind a single running back plowing out yardage. That back, whether Ricky Williams (1996-1998), Hodges Mitchell (1999-2000) or Cedric Benson (2001-2004) always ended up with four digits in their final season rushing tally.
Benson's graduation brought the end of nine consecutive seasons where Texas boasted a 1,000-yard tailback. In the five seasons since, Texas has only had a running back hit that plateau once — Jamaal Charles, who rushed for 1,619 yards in 2007. Even worse, in the two years following Charles's departure, the Longhorns' running game as a whole dipped.
Change in Emphasis
The year after Benson left, the Longhorns still had a 1,000-yard rusher. It just so happened that the runner operated from the shotgun. Vince Young finished the 2005 season with the team's rushing title, as well as a National Championship ring on his finger. The top back from 2005-2007 was Charles, who finished just shy of 900 yards in both 2005 and 2006 before topping the 1,600-yard mark in 2007.
But in 2008, a non-running back again led the Longhorns on the ground. Colt McCoy didn't have a 1,000-yard season, but he paced Texas with 561 yards anyway. Tre' Newton led Texas in 2009 with 552 rushing yards, taking the title back for the running backs but still falling well short of the 1,000-yard mark in a by-committee approach.
Offensively, Texas utilized more spread sets to take advantage of McCoy's accuracy. The results were mixed, from a statistical standpoint. Sure, the Longhorns crested in 2008 by putting up 475.8 yards per game (6.5 per play) and 41.1 points per game, but the 2009 offense's numbers dipped under the 2007 figures, finishing more than a half-yard lower in yards per play (6.2-5.6) and more than 40 yards lower in yards per game. The 2009 team still scored two points more per game than the 2007 squad, but was the beneficiary of a much higher turnover ratio (+9 in 2009 to +1 in 2007).
Perhaps more importantly, the Longhorns' reliance on the pass made them vulnerable to teams that could shut down the run game. Texas has just two losses the past two seasons — Texas Tech in 2008 and Alabama in the 2010 National Championship game — and produced nearly identical rushing numbers, rushing for 81 yards on 28 carries against Alabama and 80 yards on 28 carries against Tech.
The Longhorns have been in single-digit decisions six times over the last two years, and have only twice topped 100 yards as a team in those games. But even those weren't exactly beacons of a great rushing performance: the Longhorns averaged 3.5 yards per carry in a four-point victory over Oklahoma State in 2008 and put up 3.5 per carry against Oklahoma in 2009.
In 2007, the last season with a 1,000-yard back, Texas averaged 41.5 carries per game and rushed for 207.5 yards per game, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. In the two years since, Texas has averaged nearly four carries fewer per game (37.8), but 50 fewer yards per game (157.1), while rushing for 0.8 yards less per carry (4.2).
Heading into the 2010 season, offensive coordinator Greg Davis expressed a desire to get back under center and utilize more of a power running game. The decision was designed not just to make use of a deep and talented running back group, but also to take advantage of the talents of sophomore quarterback Garrett Gilbert.
Taller than McCoy, and blessed with a powerful down-field arm, Gilbert is seemingly built for play action. And the running game, behind a committee yet again that should include Newton, Vondrell McGee, Fozzy Whitaker and some combination of power backs Chris Whaley and Cody Johnson.
Newton expressed his excitement in the changes following the spring game.
"I love that," Newton said of the change. "It's a lot of fun just trying to get after people and running more downhill. It lets the backs see more and make more cuts."
But that was in the spring. Now it will be up to the players to go and make something happen on the ground over the course of a fall season. And while linemen like Kyle Hix lauded the improvements the line made, it's almost time for both sides: the linemen and the running backs, to go out and prove it.
With a full backfield, it's unlikely that Newton, or any of the backs, will break through the 1,000-yard barrier this season, reminding Longhorn fans of days past.
But with a renewed emphasis on the running game, one that hasn't gone unnoticed by top recruits like running backs Malcolm Brown and Aaron Green, the Longhorns might not be too far removed from their next four-digit back. It's the future. And it should seem like a blast from the past.