Texas’ youth movement has been the season-long story line. Not at running back, though.
But freshmen Chris Warren and Kirk Johnson will get their chance on Thursday against Texas Tech. Gray are Foreman are both injured, thus opening the door for Warren, a 6-2 bruiser from Rockwall, and Johnson, the 5-11 California speedster.
Talk about a Thanksgiving blessing. The Red Raiders (6-5 overall, 3-5 in Big 12) have one of the worst run defenses in the nation. Tech allows 256 rushing yards per game, which ranks 122nd nationally out of 127 teams.
Coach Charlie Strong is holding out hope that Gray (turf toe) can play in his final home game. Foreman had surgery last week to repair a broken right pinkie finger.
“If had to say right now, he would not play for us,” Strong said Monday, discussing Foreman’s status. “We’ve got other guys that have to step in and go play.”
Warren has been the team’s third-string running back all season long. Gray and Foreman got the bulk of the workload.
Gray is 58 yards shy of passing Hodges Mitchell for 10th place in school history. Foreman has proven himself a home-run hitter. He’s rushed for 100 yards in four of the last six games and leads the team with 681 yards this season.
Warren got 10 carries in the first three games, but did not play against Oklahoma State, TCU and Oklahoma. He’s gotten only eight carries the rest of the season.
That’s not to say Warren isn’t capable, said Strong and other players. Warren’s bruising style landed him in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl as a high school senior. At Rockwall, he rushed for 2,329 yards and scored 34 touchdowns last year.
Warren’s father, Chris Jr., played 11 seasons in the NFL with the Seahawks (1990-97) and Cowboys (1998-2000). He posted nearly 7,700 yards and 52 touchdowns and was a kick and punt returner early in his career.
“I feel really comfortable with Chris Warren, because he’s a big, physical strong player, very mature for his age,” Strong said. “I don’t see where he’s going to back down at all. And he’s going to take advantage of this opportunity.”
As a recruit from San Jose, Calif., Johnson was considered one of the top 30 running backs in the nation. He rushed for 1,048 yards and scored 12 times as a senior at Valley Christian.
The coaches may feel compelled to give Johnson some touches after burning his redshirt six games into the season and using him sparingly since. Johnson’s only offensive work this season came against Kansas (five carries, 12 yards).
Johnson is part of UT royalty. Johnnie Johnson was a two-time consensus All-American at Texas in 1978 and 1979. Kirk’s father played 10 seasons in the NFL, got inducted into the Texas Men’s Hall of Honor in 1990 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
No, these aren’t typical third- and fourth-string running backs.
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“I think if they were anywhere else, they could’ve been playing all year,” senior center Taylor Doyle said. “You can always count on them being out there doing the right things and being low maintenance.”
Tech’s run defense has been obliterated at times this season. Oklahoma ran for 405 yards and scored seven rushing touchdowns. Oklahoma State and West Virginia both averaged more than five yards per carry. All of this adds up to a lot of points. Tech allows 42.4 points per game.
The Horns have been an inconsistent passing team all season, but they know how to run the football. It’s up to Warren and Johnson to keep it going.
“Chris and Kirk are both very good running backs,” freshman left tackle Connor Williams said. “They run hard and run downhill. They’re definitely going to be a good addition to our offense.”