After having the third-best rushing attack in 2011, this season's group of running backs could be the best the Texas Longhorns have ever seen, partly because there are so many of them.
Like power? Meet sophomore ground-and-pounders Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, who are both looking to build on tremendous freshman campaigns. Like speed? Freshman Daje Johnson and senior D.J. Monroe have that in droves. And then there's the prodigy with Heisman Trophy-potential in freshman Johnathan Gray.
It the legs of these talented young men that the Texas Longhorns will depend upon to carry this offense back to a BCS bowl.
Read on to learn about how these guys will be expected to contribute within the offense and the other guys that make up what should be one of the nation's top rushing attacks.
After a freshman season that saw him lead the team in rushing yards, sophomore Malcolm Brown is looking to be the rock of this group and help lead this team back to a BCS bowl—if he can stay healthy.
At 6'0 and 225 lbs, Brown is a load with the speed to get to the corner and leave linebackers in the dust. After being slowly broken into the offense last season, Brown exploded for 110 yards in the revenge win over UCLA in Week 3 for the first of his three 100-yard performances. Had it not been for a turf toe injury suffered against Kansas, Brown could very well have broken 1,000 yards last season.
This season, Brown is going be starter 1A along with fellow sophomore Joe Bergeron, with whom he will split carries in the more traditional run plays with the heavier personnel on the field. The key for Brown this season will be staying healthy, as he was not the same back when he returned and was ineffective late in the season.
For any other team, Brown would probably be a 1,000-yard rusher, but with players like Bergeron and Johnathan Gray in the fold, he will probably end up with around 750 yards again this season. That's fine as long as Brown can average in the realm of 5.0 YPC and assuming everyone else does their job. One thing you would like to see from Brown would be for him to develop as a receiving threat, which would greatly help whichever quarterback is under center this season.
Arguably last season's most exciting back, sophomore Joe Bergeron will enter 2012 looking to prove that he was more than just a flash in the pan and can be a reliable option for Mack Brown and the 'Horns.
After failing to break even 40 yards in the first half of the season, Bergeron set the Forty Acres into a craze with 327 yards and five touchdowns combined against Kansas and Texas Tech. The hysteria was short-lived, however, due to a hamstring injury that rendered him ineffective for the remainder of the season.
While Bergeron is assumed to be just behind his counterpart Brown in terms of talent, he could very well emerge as the best back on the team this season. Bergeron is the biggest back on the team, and showed last season that he has the ability to break off the long ones which is something Brown was not really able to do.
While he probably will not match last year's stellar 6.4 YPC, expect Bergeron to have a very strong season, and he should be closely behind Brown for the team-lead in yardage. To do that, he will need to prove success against the best defenses in the conferences, as last year's electric performance came against two of the worst run defenses in the conference.
Also, I like Bergeron to be the goal-line back. He runs hungry and has the size to put the hurt on a would-be tackler. Just something to keep an eye on.
Probably the most highly-anticipated freshman arrival of the past decade, newcomer Johnathan Gray is the most complete back on the team. And while he may not get the lion's share of the carries for the first time in his life, Gray will be a major cog in this offense this season.
The Texas rushing attack was expected to be very good behind Brown and Bergeron, but the addition of Gray puts them on the national scale. National records and awards aside, Gray adds a dimension to the rushing attack that will take this group to the next level.
After Fozzy Whittaker went down due to an ACL tear, the Texas rushing offensive production dropped exactly 70 yards below its season average. This was due to the loss of a guy that could run the Wildhorn, had the vision to find creases in zone-blocking schemes and could catch the ball out of the backfield.
Gray can do all of those things. It is a lot to put on a freshman, but if Gray can at least partially duplicate Whittaker's role in the offense last season then this offense is going to be very difficult to defend.
Considering that Weeks 4-6 this season are all against ranked opponents, you would like to see Gray get some snaps early on so Texas can use his specialties in those games, especially if he is chosen to run the Wildhorn. Expect Gray to get about 10-15 touches per game and put up about 750 yards of offense to earn himself the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honors in 2012. Beyond that, his talent knows no limits.
Johnathan Gray is not the only Texas freshman expected to make noise this season with the coinciding arrival of Daje Johnson and his 4.34 speed.
Johnson is of the same ilk as senior speedster D.J. Monroe, who is graduating after this season, and will step into a similar role immediately for this team. Monroe has technically moved over to wide receiver to lend his speed to that group, so Johnson will be more of a running back this season though it is not quite as simple as that.
Mack Brown and the coaches simplified the offense last season because it was too much too fast, according to HornsNation's Carter Strickland. That will not be the case this season, and the team has decided to add a T-Z position to the playbook, which is a hybrid running back and wide receiver that can line up almost anywhere. That will be Johnson, as well as Monroe and occasionally Gray.
Johnson will probably fall more into the running back part of the equation, as he is a stronger runner than Monroe, meaning he will primarily get the ball on speed sweeps and screen passes. His hands are an unknown so wait and see there, but I would be surprised if he did not have a hand in the return game along with his other duties.
In short, expect that Johnson is going to have a couple plays this season that will send you into a frenzy.
Also figuring to fall into the T-Z slot, let's see if this is the season where senior D.J. Monroe can finally make a significant impact for the Longhorns.
Monroe had a decent season for Texas last season, leading the team in YPC and doing an adequate job returning kicks. The problem for the newly-converted wide receiver is that he did not record a single catch last season, which only lends to the concerns regarding his hands.
Monroe may have switched to wide receiver for 2012, but he will still get some speed sweep carries and catch balls out of the backfield per the role of T-Z player. Ideally, Monroe will surprise people and do the bulk of his damage from the wide receiver position for a group that needs him more than the running backs do.
Certainly take a wait-and-see approach with Monroe. He will get his chances in the return game and Bryan Harsin will not let his speed go to waste, but he needs to develop as more of a pass-catching threat to make room for his counterpart Johnson.
Jeremy Hills: From a fan's perspective, you really have to love Hills. He works hard and has completely given himself to this program despite knowing that he will not really see the field with the guys in front of him. Hills has made the most of the situation though, and his leadership will be key to the success of this group. He played very well in the spring and was solid in his chances last season, so he is a solid back-up should injury strike again this season. Hills is also one the team's best special teams players.
Ryan Roberson: As a senior, Ryan Roberson will be the top fullback for the Texas Longhorns in 2012. Unfortunately, he is yet another victim of the present talent at the running back position and will be left out in favor of getting two of these running backs on the field. Still, Roberson is a solid blocker with good hands, so he could very well make a play or two this season.
Alex De La Torre: Recruited as a linebacker, De La Torre was switched over to fullback in the spring and it looks like he will stay there. With Roberson in the fold, De La Torre is probably going to red-shirt this season and will therefore not make much of an impact on this team in 2012. He will probably be next year's starting fullback as long as he gets stronger, and he will certainly see time on special teams.