UT linebacker Breckyn Hager tackles Baylor running back Trestan Ebner at McLane Stadium in Waco on Oct. 28, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Football

Texas’ goal in 2018? It’s all about the running game: Find one on offense, stop the run on defense

With seven scholarship running backs on the roster, can one emerge as a game-changer for the Longhorns?

Posted July 17th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • Texas DT Chris Nelson: “I wish they would put me in the backfield.”
  • Tom Herman: “Let’s not forget we’ve got a bunch of guys on our roster that have busted their tails to develop.”
  • Longhorns open fall practice on Aug. 3 while the season opener against Maryland is Sept. 1.

FRISCO — Texas enters this season with seven scholarship running backs, all unproven. That’s not ideal. “But that’s where we’re at now,” coach Tom Herman said.

Maybe the Longhorns have been looking in the wrong places. Defensive tackle Chris Nelson, the 315-pounder from Florida, said he’s got some flashy moves, too.

“I wish they would put me in the backfield,” said Nelson, once a do-it-all athlete in high school. “I would run it, too. I wouldn’t even say goal line. You could put me at the 50-yard line, and I’d get five yards a pop.”

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So how would Nelson the running back fare against this Texas defensive front?

“Ah, that’s a tricky question, man,” Nelson said. “The defense, they’d get me. I’d still get some yards, though.”

Texas Longhorns (97) Chris Nelson tries to get to (11) Sam Ehlinger during the Orange and white spring football game at the Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday, April 15, 2017 RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Maybe it sounds too simplistic, but the 2018 season may boil down to whether Texas’ offense can run the ball and whether the defense can stop it. It encapsulates two of the biggest questions facing this group: Who’s going to emerge at running back? And how will Texas replace Poona Ford?

There weren’t too many clear answers at The Star during Big 12 media days. UT’s first practice is Aug. 3, and the season opener is Sept. 1 against Maryland at FedEx Field.

About the only thing anyone promised on Tuesday was that defensive end Breckyn Hager will cut his hair if UT wins the Big 12 title. He’ll even do it on the championship stage at AT&T Stadium.

“One-hundred percent,” Hager said. “I’m going to let everyone get a piece, because it’s going to be a story. Then I’m going to put it all in a ziplock bag and donate it to Locks of Love.”

The Longhorns did not have a dynamic play-maker in the backfield last season. Texas averaged a pedestrian 139.6 yards per game. A bulldozing run game could’ve been useful on the goal line against USC or Oklahoma State or on third-and-2 against Texas Tech. 

Injuries along the line sure didn’t help, either. When it was over, quarterback Sam Ehlinger finished the 7-6 campaign as the team’s leading rusher (42.8 yards per game).

Herman has yet to see freshman Keaontay Ingram and graduate transfer Tre Watson on the field. Neither were enrolled for spring drills. Ingram had two 2,000-yard rushing seasons at Class 4A Carthage while Watson had 2,430 all-purpose yards at California.

Carthage running back Keaontay Ingram (28) catches a pass during a trick play in the second quarter of a UIL 4A Division I state championship game between Kennedale and Carthage on Friday, December 22, 2017 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News

“I would say nervous anticipation, certainly, but let’s not forget we’ve got a bunch of guys on our roster that have busted their tails to develop,” Herman said. “And I think they have. I think every single guy in that room has developed.”

The Longhorns have every reason to think their offensive line will be better under first-year assistant Herb Hand. Denzel Okafor and graduate transfer Calvin Anderson will battle at left tackle. Patrick Hudson and Elijah Rodriguez will compete at right guard. 

“The main this is I want to see my guys succeed,” well-seasoned left guard Patrick Vahe said. “I’m not really too worried about myself other than trying to do the best I can to give my team a chance to succeed at the end of the season.”

Vahe said the toughest player he’s ever had to guard was Ford, the 2017 Big 12 defensive lineman of the year. Ford finished his UT career with 20.5 tackles for loss. But more than anything, he was a dominating anchor in the middle. 

Ford was a huge reason why Texas had the second-best run defense in the league last season. The unit allowed just 106.9 yards per game. 

The Longhorns are likely to use a bevy of big men up front this year, including Nelson. Ta’Quon Graham turned heads this spring, and D’Andre Christmas and Gerald Wilbon move into more prominent roles. 

“You know, I’ve been around (defensive coordinator) Todd Orlando for a long time and knock on wood, stopping the run has never been an issue, regardless of personnel,” Herman said.

Orlando may just turn things over to Hager, who won the crowd in Frisco.

“When everyone’s on the same page, when everyone loves each other, when everyone loves their coach and everyone is doing what they do because they feel convicted to do it, that’s when empires are built,” Hager said. “Just think about it throughout history, man. It’s so obvious. 

Texas linebacker Breckyn Hager (60) looks for more crowd noise in the second half of the Texas Bowl NCAA college football game in Houston, Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

“I could brag all day about the athletic ability, about who we got, how smart we are as a defense. Because we are intelligent,” he said. “You have to be intelligent to be at the University of Texas. We are football savvy, my friend. We know what’s coming, and we get excited about knowing what’s coming.”

Hager said all the internal team cliques have “melted away.” Players have fully gotten on board with Herman. Beating Missouri in the Texas Bowl without eight starters sure helped. 

“Dude, I’m sitting on the best coach in college football, and I’ve been highly critical for no reason. Stubborn, foolish young man,” Hager said. “I finally saw the light when that bowl game was over. It started creeping in like the holy spirit.”

If the Longhorns can find a good running game, the entire congregation may fall in line, too. Amen, indeed.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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