A quick glance at the Texas Longhorns' depth chart reveals a who's-who of Texas high school running backs, starting with sophomore Malcolm Brown and freshman Johnathan Gray.
Both were No. 1-ranked running back recruits nationally. Brown led Cibolo Steele to a 5A Division II state championship in 2010; Gray helped Aledo win three straight 4A Division II state titles and became the Gatorade national overall male high school athlete of the year for his 2011 campaign.
Texas hopes its talented backfield will keep delivering championships.
"We want to be in the BCS, in the end," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "The ones who are playing in that, by and large, are running it and stopping the run ... We want to make sure we are pounding people and beating them at the line of scrimmage."
Sophomore Joe Bergeron, from North Mesquite, and senior Jeremy Hills, an All-State running back in high school at Alief Elsik in Houston, round out the Longhorns' quartet of skilled runners.
"I think the best thing about the running backs is how selfless they are," said junior Mason Walters, a guard who leads Texas' offensive line, which will start four veterans. "All they want to do is win. They aren't worried about getting their names in the paper. They aren't worried about how many times they touch the ball. All they know is, when they get the ball, they are going to run as hard as they can for as long as they can."
Walters started all 13 games last season and was selected second-team All-Big 12. Sophomores Dominic Espinosa (center) and Josh Cochran (tackle) both earned freshman All-American honors from Yahoo! last season. Junior guard Trey Hopkins has started 17 games for Texas, and transfer lineman Donald Hawkins also brings experience.
Together, Texas' offensive linemen have the potential to dominate this season, opening gaps for their quick and powerful ball carriers.
"Hey, we are going to be able to run the ball," Walters said. "We know we have good backs. If we don't run the ball well, it's because of us. We like that, and we don't mind the pressure."
Last season, Malcolm Brown and Bergeron combined for 1,205 rushing yards with 10 touchdowns as Texas' offensive identity shifted from pass-reliant to a hard-nosed rushing attack.
"You look at Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, and they are powerful," Mack Brown said. "The great backs, Ricky Williams, Earl Campbell, Roosevelt Leaks, could make yards in the fourth quarter when everyone was tired. These guys have the ability to do that. Even Johnathan Gray is a 210-pound guy. They are a load, and if you pound them through the game, they have a chance to wear you down at the end."
Gray has the running ability to demand multiple carries each game, but he will have to learn other areas of the college game to earn that playing time.
"He's going to step it up and play against better competition," Mack Brown said. "He's been hit a bunch, he's carried it a bunch. He's really fast, and he's great in space. The question will be the blocking, because he hasn't done that very much. People say, 'don't have him block when he's in there,' but sometimes he is going to have to do it. We will have to work hard on that."
Texas struggled moving the ball at times last season, especially in the passing game. The Longhorns, using a two-quarterback system with David Ash and Case McCoy, had 2,469 passing yards to 2,634 rushing. While the Texas quarterbacks threw 16 touchdowns, they also had 15 interceptions and a 58 completion percentage.
A strong ground game this season will open up passing opportunities. A more explosive passing game will lead to a more effective ground game. Texas hopes to create that energizing cycle on offense, which paired with one of the top defenses in the Big 12, should lead to wins. It's a formula Walters recognized in last year's national championship game between Alabama and LSU.
"You have to be balanced on offense to so regard, but last year you saw two teams in the national championship that both ran the ball really well, and that's kind of what they relied on," Walters said.
For Walters and his teammates, watching championships isn't acceptable. After losing to Alabama for the national championship in 2009, the Longhorns missed out on a bowl game in 2010 with a 5-7 record. Last season Texas finished with an 8-5 record by beating Cal in the Holiday Bowl, but the Longhorns failed to challenge for the Big 12 title.
"It hasn't been fun the last two years," Walters said. "We've lost too many."
In the off-season, Mack Brown challenged his team to become more physical.
Texas' return to the top of the polls will begin up front.
"I feel really good about this team right now, where we are headed," Mack Brown said. "I think we are pretty talented at every spot, and I think that's why we will have a chance to get back to where we need to be."
Brent Shirley, 817-390-7760