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August 25, 2011
UT hoping backs will be off and running
The position coach: Major Applewhite, 4th season
Frontrunner: Malcolm Brown
The problem with Whittaker, of course, is that similar things have been said during his three previous years in the program, only to see injuries derail his seasons before he ever really had a chance to prove himself. The hope, or belief, from those in the program is that 2011 will be different. Whittaker has himself in the best shape of his career and he knows this is his last shot to make an impression.
Brown was slow getting started while dealing with what was described to us as a minor upper leg injury (an actual diagnosis was never given), but he's come on strong in the last two weeks. Bergeron has impressed from the second he stepped on campus with his power, smarts and work ethic. He's made his mark in fall camp, delivering some crushing blocks and running over would-be tacklers.
D.J. Monroe will have an increased workload this fall and while people have continued to talk about his explosiveness and creative ways the new offense will get him the ball, the other backs have dominated the camp conversations.
Redshirt freshman Traylon Shead turned in a strong performance during the team's first scrimmage of the pre-season, but overall he's had a quiet few weeks. Rumors of Shead looking at an eventual transfer or a position switch have already begun to swirl.
Overall, mostly due to Whittaker's strong camp and the rapid emergence of the freshmen backs, there is a sense of optimism for this year's ground game that hasn't been there the past few years.
Questions to be answered: This one really boils down to two things ... can Fozzy Whittaker hold up and can the true freshmen live up to the pre-season hype.
Think back to when Whittaker was a redshirt freshman in 2008. In a backfield that included Vondrell McGee, Chris Ogbonnaya, Cody Johnson and Jeremy Hills, it was Whittaker that earned the most pre-season buzz. He was described as a change of pace guy from the other backs that were competing for reps and there was talk from people close to the football team that Whittaker was going to be one of the season's surprises.
An injury in practice, before the season ever began, set Whittaker back and forced him out of the season opener. He did play in the Horns' second game of the year, against UTEP, rushing for 76 yards on just 12 carries (McGee was second in that game with 20 yards on 6 carries). People thought Fozzy was ready to take off. Instead, Whittaker was re-injured and sat out the next four games before picking up two carries in week 7. He missed week 8. Returned for week 9 and then played sporadically for the rest of the year. That kind of unpredictable play has been Whittaker's career in a nutshell over the last three years.
In 2011, he once again seems poised to finally have a break-out year, but he's going to need to show he can make it through a full season without missing time due to injury. If he cannot, Brown and Bergeron may take hold of the top spots and never let go. Along with their natural talents, the two freshmen are known for being incredibly durable.
One person with direct ties to the program described Whittaker as the offense's top performer through the first half of fall camp. The emergence of the freshmen cut into his touches over the second half of camp, but Whittaker continued to make the most of his opportunities. He's cat quick, has great vision, is a terrific receiver and runs with more power than people give him credit for. If Whittaker can stay healthy, it's not out of the question that he'll challenge his career yardage total of 847.
For Brown and Bergeron, it's been a very smooth transition to the college game, despite a minor setback early in camp that had Brown out of scrimmage work for a few days. Both players are extremely mature and are similar in their personalities in that they never seem to get phased by any challenge that's put in front of them. Both guys just keep their mouth shut, their head down and work their tails off. Obviously, neither Brown nor Bergeron has ever faced the type of scrutiny and pressure they'll face at Texas, but these two do not have the mental make-up of a normal true freshman.
Jeremy Hills continues to be an intriguing option and he seems to make plays in his very limited opportunities, but it's hard to see where he'll get many touches barring some injuries at the top of the depth chart.
Long-term outlook: For the first time in a long while, the UT ground game does seem to be in very good hands. It will again be a season of running back by committee, but Whittaker, Brown and Bergeron could give the Longhorns the type of punch that Texas has lacked in the past. Whittaker's speed and explosiveness, plus his ability to catch the football, should allow him to excel in Bryan Harsin's offense. Brown and Bergeron should be at their best in the second half of games when defenses are wearing down.
Texas has been looking for a consistent ground game ever since Jamaal Charles left the program following the 2007 season (and truth be told, Texas ground game was somewhat inconsistent that year, with a midseason lull by Charles).
A new offensive scheme that will keep defenses guessing should open up running lanes for the backs, as should a Texas offensive line that has a lot of talent in its starting five. The guess here is that the Horns turn in one of their best ground games in the past five years. Of course, that's what people were saying last year as well. We'll know soon enough.