Texas RBs tweaking habits to fit new up-tempo offense

By pressing the accelerator on the team’s offensive philosophy, Texas football coach Mack Brown has energized the primary cogs in the Longhorns’ ground game.

Texas’ goal is to squeeze in roughly 15 more snaps per game than last season (68), a message that has resonated among running backs and offensive linemen because the Longhorns seek more than additional passing opportunities from their up-tempo mind-set.

“A faster tempo means more plays. And we’ll need more fresh legs,” offensive guard Trey Hopkins said. “With the run success we anticipate having, it won’t really matter when you play. You’ll have an important role, regardless.”

In the trenches, Hopkins said he envisions a 10-man rotation among a group of linemen who have combined for 124 career starts, most of any FBS school. But the biggest change has come at tailback, where Texas’ top three returnees have taken tangible off-season steps to improve their performance.

Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown altered their dietary habits, with Bergeron dropping 20 pounds to boost his endurance and Brown eating healthier in efforts to minimize injuries. Johnathan Gray, a former Aledo standout who was last year’s leading rusher (701 yards, three TDs), has worked on his explosive power.

Texas coaches have been encouraged by the way their tailbacks have embraced the up-tempo attack, which should translate to more carries across the board. Between them, Texas’ top three tailbacks combined to rush for 1,592 yards and 23 touchdowns last season. But expectations are higher in 2013, with plans for more plays per game behind a veteran line.

“All three are quality players. We feel like we’ve got plenty of plays and plenty of balls that we can get to them,” Mack Brown said. “We just need them to stay healthy. Even though we’re up-tempo, we want to continue to run the ball and be balanced.”

Gray, a breakaway threat in high school, seeks to unleash more long runs after averaging only 4.7 yards per carry in his freshman season. Gray also has set a personal goal: 1,500 combined yards as a rusher and receiver in a season when Texas’ tailback tandem is expected to include occasional carries by scatbacks Daje Johnson and Jalen Overstreet, who will double as the No. 4 quarterback.

“I’m not going to get caught on the 1-yard line anymore,” said Gray, whose career-long 49-yard burst against West Virginia ended that way last season. “A lot more runs are going to be broken. I plan to … get better every year. We’re getting into a potent offense where all three of the running backs are in it. You can see a little bit of everything.”

Technically, you’ll see less of Bergeron, last year’s leader in rushing touchdowns (16) who eliminated sweets from his diet. Texas’ primary power back began fall camp at 225 pounds, down from 245 last year.

“With me being a bigger back, I needed to do it for the up-tempo offense,” Bergeron said. “I am in love with oatmeal [cream] pies, but this is my job. I have to make sacrifices.”

Also eating healthier these days is Malcolm Brown, who missed five games last year because of an ankle injury. The junior from Cibolo Steele led the Longhorns in rushing during the 2011 season (742 yards, five TDs) but has played in only 18 of a possible 26 games in his college career. He said recurring injuries have been “a little bit frustrating” but he’s counting on a leaner diet leading to a stronger body and fewer rehab stints.

“They believe in the rotation,” Malcolm Brown said. “And the rotation is going very well. I like it. A lot of the great teams have two or three backs in their stable. If someone has 100 yards, that is great. The other guys will cheer him on.”

In Texas’ up-tempo attack, the premise is to minimize substitutions in order to limit defensive adjustments while wearing down the opponent. That means the tailback who starts a productive drive has a good chance to finish it, a philosophy that has motivated all three players to make sacrifices to become more well-rounded performers.

“We have all improved,” Bergeron said. “With it being multiple backs, we have been introduced to that atmosphere that you are not going to be that single back. You cannot have that selfish mind-set.”

But all three realize the bottom line: If Texas’ up-tempo attack works as planned, there should be 15 additional plays per game for the tailback who is most productive on any given day. And all three players are interested in claiming his share of them.