September 9, 2008

Identity of Texas' running game wears No. 28

There's no reason to panic about the Texas running game … unless Foswhitt Whittaker isn't the starter on Saturday against Arkansas.

With 12 carries against UTEP, Whittaker spread a whole bunch of sugar on a running game that otherwise tasted like liver. Take away Whittaker's work and Texas ran it 19 times for 50 yards (2.6 yards per carry) against a UTEP defense that gave up 263 yards rushing to Buffalo. With 76 yards and a 6 yards-per-carry average, Whittaker made it clear he's the hot hand.

The coaches have said they will play the guy with the hot hand. Whittaker is it. Period.

Vondrell McGee is an I-formation running back trying to play out of the shotgun. McGee ran almost exclusively out of the I at Longview. Colt McCoy told us McGee did his best work in training camp out of the I and guess what? Unless Greg Davis plans on using a lot more I, McGee is having to get out of his comfort zone. By the way, Texas has run out of the I twice this season. Twice.

And don't look for that to change.

"I think Vondrell is getting more comfortable running out of the gun," Greg Davis said Monday. "We will use more I-formation as we go forward, but I think I said in August we'll still be an 11 personnel (one back, one tight end), shotgun football team for the most part."

So hand the ball to Whittaker, who has already shown a special ability to cut in traffic the way Jamaal Charles did. He doesn't have Charles' speed. But Whittaker can make people miss.

CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED

Mack Brown on Monday seemed to have a warning for backs who weren't able to make people miss.

"We need to break more tackles," Brown said. "We need to finish runs better. We can't let people bring us down with arm tackles."

The coaches were sounding all the right alarms Monday.


"I'm not pleased with the running game right now," Davis said. "I have shared that with our offensive football team. We want to be more consistent. And having said that, I don't want to make too big a deal about it. Historically, other than 1998, we have started a little slow in the run game and ended up being proficient with it."

Davis' rationale for these slow starts will certainly stir debate.

"Personally, I think it's because you have to be so careful in camp about the number of live snaps you get. Everybody does," Davis said.

Davis went on to say because Whittaker banged up his knee in the second-to-last scrimmage of fall camp, coaches had go slowly with McGee and not expose him to any more tackling.

"We didn't want to go into the season with one back (Chris Ogbonnaya)," Davis said.

But running backs run. They either have it or they don't. If they're productive in high school, they've got a good shot at being productive in college.

Whittaker was amazingly productive in high school. He finished as the sixth all-time leading rusher in Class 5A history with 5,717 yards at Pearland. And don't think I'm saying McGee isn't talented. He is. He's explosive, but he's a straight-line runner more comfortable following a fullback.

Saturday night in El Paso either the play-calling was off or that offensive line isn't quite as good as advertised. The pass protection was outstanding. But 19 carries for 50 yards (outside of Whittaker's runs) don't say much for a unit being touted as a bunch of mashers. There's less than four weeks before Big 12 play starts. The running game needs to get better - fast.

NO REPEAT OF 2007

Texas can't afford another year like last year when it took until the 13:05 mark of the fourth quarter in Week 9 while trailing Nebraska to figure out how to run the ball. That's when Colt McCoy went to the sideline with tweety birds around his head for one play.

In came John Chiles, who ran zone read with Charles. The play went for 25 yards. Charles ended up with 216 yards rushing in the fourth quarter and 290 for the game. He was almost benched coming out of the Baylor game the week before because he had only 2 yards on six carries in the second half.

Once Texas fell into its running game in Week 9, the Longhorns never looked back. McCoy ran for nearly 500 yards over the second half of the season, and Charles went from nearly being benched to the NFL. The Longhorns can't afford to stumble around this season. If they do, any chance of staying in the Top 10 and making a run at a special season will be gone.

There would also be nothing wrong with John Chiles running zone read with Whittaker behind the first-team O-line instead of the second unit. Texas' longest run this season by a back is 15 yards (Whittaker vs. UTEP). With Chiles at QB and Whittaker next to him - as a change of pace - the big runs would undoubtedly increse.

It almost seemed like the coaches wanted to see what their running game looked like against UTEP without McCoy carrying the ball much. (He had five carries for 8 yards.) If that was a test of what the running game looked like without McCoy contributing, consider it an F - until Whittaker got in the game.

The bottom line is Texas has struggled to run the ball under Mack Brown on teams that didn't include Ricky Williams or Vince Young. The benchmark of any strong running team is 4 yards per carry. Texas coaches have a motto - "Get four, then worry about more."

Texas failed to average 4 yards per carry in 1999 (3.7), 2000 (3.9) and 2002 (3.4). That 2002 season included Cedric Benson. Things got better when Mac McWhorter took over as line coach in 2003.

But Texas has struggled to run the ball against its best competition. UT has averaged only 3.6 yards per carry against OU the last 10 years and only 3.3 ypc against teams in the Top 10 and 3.9 yards per carry against Top 25 teams in that span.

THE THREE AMIGOS

This year's group of running backs - McGee, Whittaker and Chris Ogbonnaya - genuinely get along. There is no selfishness.

"It goes back to the very first meeting," Colt McCoy said. "We knew there was potential for a problem there. The first speech from Greg Davis was, 'Bring gold home for Texas. Whatever you can do to help this team, do it.' I think that chemistry is a big reason we've been successful early."

Davis was impressed with Whittaker's ability between the tackles Saturday.

"I think because he has good vision and good burst it's implied he can't run between the tackles," Davis said. "He has really good hip strength and leg strength, so he can run between the tackles."

HUNGRY AND FOCUSED

Whittaker is mature beyond his years, in part, because his father died when Fozzy was 3.

"I've been living in a single-parent family all my life," he said. "My mom just remarried, but growing up I had to rely and depend on my mother and my two brothers. That's what helped keep me strong my whole life."

Mack Brown loves Whittaker's smarts and smile.

"Fozzy is a brilliant young man," Brown said. "He will never miss an assignment. He's got a great smile, and he seems to have good ball security. But he can catch and do the pass protections, too."

Whittaker said Tuesday he felt no ill effects in his left knee after Saturday night's game.

"I feel good, feel healthy," he said.

And looked good. He's the hot hand - exactly what the coaches said they were looking for. It's time for Texas' running game to form an identity. Right now, that identity wears No. 28.


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