The Texas Longhorns are the proud owners of the fourth-most talented rushing attack in the nation according to ESPN Insider KC Joyner. Unfortunately, that amount of talent is not going to be able to produce the championship results, both on the conference and national scales, that the team and players alike are aspiring toward.
Don't be mistaken. This group that is highlighted by key returnees Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, as well as big-time freshmen Daje Johnson and Johnathan Gray, is incredibly talented and will turn a lot of heads this season. To quantify, these guys should churn out something near 3,000 yards with the help of their quarterback and Bryan Harsin's tricky play-calling.
However, there is simply too much pressure being placed on these guys for them to win 11 or 12 games this season. Here's why.
Even more so than the running game, the Texas defense has had a boat load of expectations placed on its shoulders as the lynchpin for this team. Too much so, actually.
The consensus heading into this season is that the Longhorns defense is going to be even better than last year's group that led the conference in yards allowed and only gave up 22.2 points/game. They will be suffocating and seemingly impregnable at times. But, just like last year's group, they cannot do it every Saturday.
Despite their prowess last season, the Longhorn D still gave up 55 to Oklahoma, 38 to Oklahoma State and 48 to Robert Griffin III and Baylor. No, the offense and the quarterbacks did not do these guys any favors with turnovers and short fields so they are not entirely to blame. But it happened, and chances are it will happen again this season.
And when it does, the running backs cannot be expected to put up those kind of numbers. At that point the responsibility falls to the quarterback to make big plays, which no quarterback on this team has proven he can do.
The running backs will gain yards and put up points, but it is unreasonable to think that they can match, say, a hot Landry Jones with the solid defense he has behind him.
The defense will make mistakes, and unless David Ash proves that he can make plays when that happens, the running backs will be in an impossible uphill battle.
This goes without saying, but due to the prowess of these running backs and the fact that quarterback is still such a question mark, it is safe to say opposing defenses are going to stack the box against the run.
This is no surprise considering everyone and their mother knows how Texas wants to get it done on offense, but it is a concern when you look at what took place last season.
After the running game, especially Brown and Bergeron, took off against Texas Tech and Kansas, the rest of the conference became acutely aware that the next generation of great Texas running backs had arrived.
The response was a rushing average of 132.6 yards over the next five games, which is exactly 70 yards less per game than their season average. Injuries to both players definitely factored into that number, but there is no denial that Brown and Bergeron's best games came against the two worst run defenses in the conference.
Against the four best rush defenses not belonging to the Horns, the most yards either churned out was 40 yards by Bergeron against Kansas State.
If these two are going to come anywhere close to meeting expectations, they have to figure out how to run against good defenses that know it's coming. Otherwise, fans are going to be sorely disappointed.
Last season, the Texas running game was greatly helped by senior Fozzy Whittaker's mastery of the Wildhorn formation. With Whittaker gone, will anyone step up and fill the void?
The Wildhorn is essential to the effectiveness of the run game. It is no coincidence that the 132.6 average over the last five games happened to occur after Whittaker went down with an ACL and the Wildhorn with him. And it is not like they did not try to replace him in the formation. Nobody—including do-it-all wideout Jaxon Shipley—could adequately fill the role.
Now the best option is from the following group of freshmen: Johnathan Gray, Daje Johnson and Jalen Overstreet. Gray seems to be front-runner to earn the job, but he is still a freshman and will already have enough to adjust to without essentially learning to run an offense scheme. Fans will have to stay tuned on this front.
If you want to win in college football, you have to win big games. For all the talent in this backfield, none of these guys are proven performers in these situations.
Outside of Malcolm Brown's 135-yard performance against the Cowboys, neither of these backs has proven themselves in the big game. Both were non-existent against Oklahoma, Brown was stifled throughout the A&M showdown, and neither was able to get much in the bowl win against Cal.
Injuries and situational circumstances aside, this is troubling when you consider these are the guys the whole team will lean on.
Gray and Johnson get a pass here because they are freshmen, and even more in Gray's defense, he once scored eight touchdowns in a state championship game. Still, this whole group will have a lot to prove in the big games this season.
Considering the injuries that plagued the running backs in the second half of last season, it is amazing that they were able to accomplish what they did. They will not be so lucky this season should similar troubles take place.
Between Fozzy Whittaker's devastating ACL tear, Joe Bergeron's hamstring issues and Malcolm Brown's turf toe, one would hope that this group's injury issues are behind them. But you have to always be prepared for the worst, and a repeat of last year's injury bug is definitely the worst.
After Brown's injury against Kansas, he averaged an abysmal 2.7 yards/carry. After Bergeron's, he only produced 49 total yards of offense. This is especially disconcerting considering these two will be getting an increased workload this season.
This team can ill afford to have both of these guys go down simultaneously and it is extremely unlikely the Longhorns will be that unlucky again. Losing either Brown or Bergeron is manageable because they are very similar runners. However, if Gray or Johnson goes down for an extended period that could be problematic because their skill sets are unique to themselves.
This is an issue for every team, but especially so for this group. Keep fingers crossed here because if it happens this season could slip away quickly.