* Top-15 backs
The Longhorns have landed just one Scout.com top-15 running back in the last five years, Chris Whaley, who was the No. 10 rated back in the 2009 class. Why does a spot in the top-15 matter? Well, the last time the Longhorns pulled in a top-15 talent at running back, the player (Jamaal Charles, rated No. 14 in 2005) rushed for over 1,000 yards. Over that same time period, the rival Oklahoma Sooners have landed five top-15 running backs.
But here's the interesting part: none of the top-rated running backs to come out of the state who have chosen other schools, including five-star talents like Jermie Calhoun, Justin Johnson and Christine Michael, have earned Texas offers. Instead, Texas has elected to offer running backs like Jeremy Hills (No. 25 back in the class of 2008 with Calhoun and Johnson) and Tre' Newton (No. 75 back in that same class). Johnson and Calhoun were rated as the Nos. 2 and 3 running backs in that class, respectively.
The Longhorns haven't necessarily been burned by their choices: Johnson transferred out of OU, while Calhoun will play a larger part in this season's rushing rotation for the Sooners. The more painful misses (though again, Texas didn't offer) appear to be Texas A&M's duo of Cyrus Gray (No. 11 back in 2008) and Michael (No. 4 in 2009). The duo combined to rush for 1,601 yards and 15 touchdowns last year, in Gray's true sophomore and Michael's true freshman seasons.
Looking for an off-the-beaten path example to follow? How about Oklahoma State, which has used little-known runners from the Lone Star State the past two years? In 2007, Kendall Hunter was the No. 50 rated running back following his senior season at John Tyler High School in Tyler, Texas. Just a year later, as a sophomore in Stillwater, Hunter rushed for 1,555 yards and 16 touchdowns. When Hunter faced a slew of injuries in 2009, he was replaced by Keith Toston, a senior from Angleton, Texas. All Toston did was rush for 1,218 yards and 11 scores of his own. Toston was the No. 42 running back in the 2006 class. Now, as a senior in a less crowded backfield, look for Hunter to topple the 1,000 yard mark yet again.
* Line coming of age
Five years, ago, Mack Brown signed an offensive line class that included one five-star prospect, J'Marcus Webb. Webb struggled academically and was gone after a year, a fitting struggle for a sub-par line class. But Brown's 2007 class, landed just one year later, has a chance to go down as a strong one. Two of the five offensive linemen signed in the 2007 class — Kyle Hix and Michael Huey — are returning starters from a year ago, while a third member, the highest-rated lineman in that class, Tray Allen, is slated for a starting job. If the line does well this year, with three-fifths of the line's production coming from the 2007 class, you've got to like that percentage.
* Texas full of power backs
Looking for a running back to ram the ball into the end zone? Look no further than Texas. The state has produced some excellent short-yardage runners who excel at keeping the chains moving and lighting up the scoreboard inside the five-yard line. Texas A&M made hay near the end zone with Jorvorskie Lane for several years, with Texas's Cody Johnson scoring 12 touchdowns last year. Chris Whaley could fill a similar need for the Longhorns this year, while Kansas's Toben Opurum, a Plano native, scored 10 touchdowns last year as a true freshman and serves as one of the top short-yardage backs in the league. And though he lacks the size of a power back, it's hard to find a better runner near the end zone than Texas Tech's Baron Batch. The Midland product scored 15 times last year, 14 times on runs.
* Texas full of backs, period
Look up and down the Big 12, and you'll see running backs hailing from Texas. Six teams have Texans slated as Opening Day starters, including Kansas and every Big 12 South team but Oklahoma (DeMarco Murray hails from Nevada). But five other five teams all have Texans slated as part of their running back rotations (Calhoun, Oklahoma; Kendial Lawrence, Missouri; John Hubert, Kansas State; Rex Burkhead, Nebraska; and James White, Iowa State).
Colorado is the only Big 12 team that bucks the Texas trend in the backfield. In fact, Colorado doesn't have a Texas-bred running back on roster.
So what does it all mean? Well, it means there are some …
Reasons for the Longhorns to mope
For one thing, the Longhorns' record at landing highly touted running backs isn't just shocking, it's among the worst in the Big 12 South. As mentioned earlier, the Longhorns have landed just one top-15 running back in the past five years. Three Big 12 South teams — Oklahoma (5), Texas A&M (3) and Oklahoma State (2) — have landed more top-15 running backs over that time period. Only perennial cellar-dweller Baylor and pass-happy Texas Tech had fewer.
There's less of a gripe on the offensive line front, except to point out that Brown hasn't always had the most success with highly touted line types.
Reasons for the Longhorns to hope
As is often the tale with recruiting, the rankings don't tell the whole story. For one thing, the Longhorns received strong production last season from Newton, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry. For another, the drought on top-notch runners appears to have ended. In February's class, the Longhorns landed DeMarco Cobbs, the top-rated recruit in the state of Oklahoma. Ranked by Scout.com as a five-star safety, Cobbs will start his career at Texas on the other side of the ball. As a runner, Cobbs brings a rare combination of power, shiftiness and high-level acceleration. What's more, Texas appears to be in great shape with Malcolm Brown, Scout.com's No. 1 rated running back in this year's class, and also sits well with Aaron Green, Scout's No. 3 running back. Bringing in back-to-back classes with five-star tailbacks would go a long way toward getting the ground game up and running again.
Then there's the offensive line group, arguably the best line class in the country to date. The crown jewel is Christian Westerman, Scout's No. 1 guard. Westerman not only boasts outstanding athleticism, he's a mean and dominant run blocker at the point of attack. Pairing him with Garrett Greenlea, Scout's No. 3 offensive tackle, and Cedric Flowers, Scout's No. 2 guard, should give the Longhorns a strong base to continue to build up the future running game. And none of that counts Taylor Doyle, Marcus Hutchins and Josh Cochran, guys who are lower-rated prospects (all have earned three-star ratings from Scout), but all of whom have excellent frames and potential.
Over the past five years:
RB: Seven players, 3.7 average rating
FB: One player, 4.0 rating
OL: 18 players, 3.7 average rating (one not rated)
2007 — Foswitt Whitaker, 4*, No. 29 RB
2008 — Jeremy Hills, 4*, No. 25 RB; Tre' Newton, 3*, No. 75 RB
2009 — Chris Whaley, 4*, No. 10 RB
2010 — Traylon Shead, 4*, No. 18 RB
2007 — Cody Johnson, 4*, No. 2 FB in nation