Newly-minted Texas offensive coordinator Major Applewhite has a unique issue in the form of three starting-caliber running backs. For his up-tempo offense to bringing 10-win success back to Austin, he needs to figure out how to formulate a rotation that keeps each back involved.
Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron are three talented runners with three different styles. Gray is the smallest of the bunch, with the quickest feet and best vision on the team. Bergeron is a textbook short-yardage back, and Brown a pleasant medium between the two.
While different, the three also have a lot in common. Each has multiple 100-yard games under their belt, has significant starting experience and is capable of ripping off big gains. Most importantly, all three can finish a drive as well as they can start it.
This is why it is so important Applewhite gives each the ball frequently in his offense. While each runner attacks the defense in different ways, there is no need to substitute any of them multiple times in a drive—which is valuable when you are trying to operate at a break-neck pace.
But a rotation needs to be defined, both to keep them healthy and to take advantage of their talent to the fullest extent. Herein lies the problem, as there are only a certain number of carries to go around with specialists like Daje Johnson certain to cut into the final figure.
Unfortunately, the 'Horns have not had a great track record with divvying up the load. The Texas game plan always seemed to leave one out of the equation in 2012, playing seven games where at least one got five carries or less.
Health and Bryan Harsin's offense both played a part in this issue for much of the season, but Applewhite did display the same unsettling proclivity. Brown and Bergeron combined for nine carries in their new coordinator's Alamo Bowl debut, even though the game was practically played in the Brown's home town.
There is simply no reason or excuse to waste talent like this. Running an offense similar to Applewhite's, the 2005 Longhorns were able to give three running backs—Jamaal Charles, Ramonce Taylor and Henry Melton—75 carries or more on the year. And that was with Vince Young rushing it 155 times, a figure David Ash will not even come close to in 2013.
That same level of equitable sharing is easily doable. Texas ran the ball about 56 percent of the time in 2012, so if the offense maintains that ratio while running the stated goal of 80 plays per game, then there will be just over 45 carries per game to be divided out.
Gray will get the largest share of the pie because of how well he fits the scheme and his overall talent. He should expect 15 carries per game, with Brown and Bergeron combining for another 15-20 between them. That provides each back just under 100 carries on the year and leaves another 10-15 rushes per night for David Ash and the specialists.
While that figure is purely speculative and ignores the potential for injury, it proves the three-back time share is both doable and reasonable. It also takes full advantage of the players at Applewhite's disposal, essential for a program that has taken heat for its inability to maximize talent.
The point is that when all three are healthy and ready to go, they need to be on the field. Especially with an inexperienced receiving corps and a quarterback prone to some inconsistency.
If Applewhite can do that in an effective manner, these backs have the talent to combine for one of the most lethal rushing attacks in the country.