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Wednesday, January 2, 2013
First order of business for Porter: juggling

By Carter Strickland

AUSTIN, Texas -- Larry Porter has stepped into a backfield loaded with talent.

Porter has stepped into a backfield loaded with potential issues.

It can be looked at either way. Texas has three every-down running backs who would most likely either start or contend for more playing time at another program and another hybrid back in Daje Johnson, who if he were at another program, would certainly be used much more than he was in 2012.

Welcome to Texas, where there is an embarrassment of riches that have done nothing but left the fan base red-faced in frustration as of late. Everybody, clearly players included, wants more.

And now it is Porter’s job to give it to them. All of them, that is. The newly appointed running backs coach, while heralded as an excellent recruiter, first must figure out who he can use and who he can’t in the Texas run game.

Sure, coach Mack Brown has repeatedly said Texas needs all three. He continually points back to the 2011 Missouri game as his proof. That one game is continually held up as an example of how to construct the Texas running game instead of the anomaly that it actually was.

Additionally, what Mack Brown is forgetting in his finger-pointing at the past is that Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, the top running backs in the state in their respective recruiting classes, were not meant to be backups. Undoubtedly neither wants to be one, either.

Each has starter potential. Joe Bergeron, not so much, at least at Texas. And then given what Tavon Austin did as a running back against Oklahoma -- 344 yards -- there is more than enough evidence to support getting the ball to the Austin-like Johnson much more often than 2.3 times a game he touched it as a runner in 2012.

Teams have thrived with three backs. TCU has done it successfully for years. But the Horned Frogs didn’t do it when they had a featured runner like LaDainian Tomlinson.

Making a run to the BCS is plausible with two solid backs. Alabama had Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon each average more than 76 yards per game this year. Notre Dame had Cierre Woods and Theo Riddick average 74 and 73, respectively.

But of the 10 teams in BCS games, none consistently featured three running backs. Notre Dame came the closest with George Atkinson III having 51 carries and 378 total yards behind Woods and Riddick. In fact, the majority of 2012 BCS programs had a distinctly featured runner and a backup.

Texas might be able to blur the line slightly more than that due to the talent level of Gray and Brown. Stretching that line to include a third and fourth runner will be difficult task for Porter as well as play-caller Major Applewhite, for that matter.

Porter has done it with some success before. He had three running backs at LSU in 2007, two of whom -- Jacob Hester and Trindon Holliday -- were NFL picks. The Tigers rushed for 204.5 yards per game and won the title that year. (Texas rushed for 171 in 2012.) But even then Hester had the bulk of the work with 1,103 rushing yards on 225 carries. Holliday, then a sophomore, only had 53 carries and 364 yards.

The difference at Texas is that Gray is a rising sophomore and Brown a rising junior. Both are playing for money at the next level -- Gray’s father James readily admitted the selection of Texas for the nation’s top recruit in 2012 was the best business decision -- and to get it they need to touch the football, soon and a lot. (For those possibly pointing to Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall at Georgia as an example for Texas to follow, both are freshmen and Gurley gets nearly twice as many touches in the run game.)

Brown, in his homecoming at the Alamo Bowl and fully healthy after a lingering ankle issue, only touched the ball four times in the run game against Oregon State. Early in the season, in another game in which he was healthy, Brown only touched it twice. Despite that, before going out with an injury against Oklahoma State, Brown had two 100-plus yards game in three starts. Brown rushed for 105 in the opener, five yards in the second game and 128 in the third game. Clearly the staff struggled with how best to utilize him. Ditto for Johnson. And Bergeron. And even Gray, for that matter.

So suffice it to say, despite landing on 40 rather green acres, Porter, before showing his prowess as a recruiter, will need to display his talents as a coach and juggler at Texas.