Inside the Gameplan: UT’s stable of backs

Chris Warren. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Chris Warren. (Will Gallagher/IT)

As it should be abundantly clear, Texas is going to need to run the football early and often in 2016 in order to achieve the desired results of >8 wins and another Top 10-ish recruiting class for Charlie Strong.

The major hope for a rebound in 2015 was in something similar after UT wasted a strong defensive team in a 7-6 season thanks to an offense that could rarely even get out of its own way. As it turned out, returning multiple starters on the OL and plugging in fresh talent at every position group yielded the following results on offense:

Warren and Texas

Basically, Texas traded being good at throwing quick passes to Jaxon Shipley and John Harris, and awful at everything else to being good at running QB option on regular downs and short-yardage, and even worse at everything else.

At this point it should go without saying that Texas will need to find ways to get better QB play and/or protect the running game from loaded fronts, but it will only be necessary to do so well enough to allow the offense to feature the running backs on the roster.

The running game was the best part of the entire Longhorns team last year and every UT victory was fueled by success on the ground. Even losses to Cal, West Virginia, and Texas Tech included 200+ rushing yards and >five yards per carry.

A talented OL whose main cogs return in 2016 (Kent Perkins, Patrick Vahe, and Connor Williams) along with Texas’ two best TEs and paired with a still young defense are all clear indicators that there will be a good deal more “veer” than “shoot” in the offense next year.

So here’s a look at the three main backs Texas will be relying on to carry the ball next season:

D’Onta Foreman

The other Foreman was something of an afterthought for many people in the 2014 Texas recruiting class. He certainly was for me and I embarrassingly had him pegged as a “promising fullback prospect” due to his thick build, downhill running style, and what I thought was borderline athleticism for the position. Instead, there’s a very good chance that he’ll be the leading rusher for Texas next season.

Foreman was the 2nd leading rusher in 2015, despite finishing third in carries and nearly 30 carries behind Gray, and his downhill running style found a lot of success in Texas’ inside zone and gap-oriented running schemes:

Texas runners in 2015

(sack yardage was removed for these stats)

Foreman’s specialty is his ability to get going downfield and behind his pads in a hurry and then having enough acceleration to run through attempted tackles by DBs or even to pull away for longer runs. He’s the perfect veer and shoot tailback as the system regularly puts its backs in position to cut up the field and run through arm tackles from spread out defenses.

He’s working against an 8-man front here from the Wildcats, which Texas will be sure to face more of in 2016 from any and every opponent on the schedule, and he runs through the combined efforts of the free and strong safety through a huge hole opened up by an excellent Perkins-Vahe double team and a nice kick out block from Caleb Bluiett.

Foreman was at his best running behind lead blockers between the tackles on these gap schemes and on lead zone plays so that he could run hard with square shoulders through the hole and punish defenders at the end of his runs. He can bounce runs outside at times but he wants to get going downhill as quickly as possible.

D'Onta Foreman's 81-yard game-changing run vs OU. (Will Gallagher/IT)

D’Onta Foreman’s 81-yard game-changing run vs OU. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Since those are two of the main runs in Gilbert’s offense, Foreman should expect to see a lot of action in 2016.

Chris Warren III

Warren was introduced to Texas fans in a major way when he ran over every member of the Texas Tech defense on a 91-yard scoring run Thanksgiving night. That play was a bit deceiving in that Tech had one of the all-time worst rushing defenses in Big 12 history and a collection of safeties without the will or size to stand up to a 232-pound back charging through a hole with momentum.

That said, this league has a fair number of defenses that don’t have the will, size, or team leverage to meet and stop this ball-carrying freak in the hole when he has momentum.

His best play in 2015 was outside zone with a lead blocker off tackle as that concept allowed him to build up momentum, and then either downshift and take the edge with a body lean and a stiff arm, or to plant and cut upfield through the creases created by over pursuit from defenses desperate to avoid him winning the edge.

The result was Baylor’s strong safety Orion Stewart trying to tackle him high and getting run over as a consequence.

The only issue for 2016 is that running outside zone with TEs and lead blocker inserts is more LSU than “veer and shoot.” Warren is effective enough on inside zone and power but he’s not built as well as Foreman for the purpose of getting low and trucking through inside gaps. If you hit him low before he gets up to speed, he can be brought down without great difficulty, as sturdy LBs like Tech’s D’Vonta Hinton (5-foot-9, 225) or Baylor’s Taylor Young (also 5-foot-9, 225) discovered.

This probably won’t be a huge deal for a variety of reasons. The first is that Warren will probably learn how to run power more effectively with time and use the threat of an outside bounce to help set him up to run through defenders and get up to speed like Todd Gurley did at Georgia.

The second is that Texas may end up keeping TEs and FBs on the field in 2016 and continue to run outside zone this season as a means of protecting its suspect QBs from having to make a lot of reads and throws in the spread.

The last reason is that Texas can always combine the outside zone running track for the RB with gap-blocking via the Power-read play:

Warren Power Read

With Heard or Swoopes running behind the lead blocker and Warren working against a blocked safety and an unblocked corner, you have a recipe for his greatest traits to shine through. The defense is more or less forced to play contain and hope that the QB doesn’t hurt them too badly charging through the middle of their defense, if we’re talking about Heard here that’s not a good bet.

Warren is the kind of back that can do real damage in the Big 12 because of the personnel features of the anti-spread defenses, but his ideal fit is in a more pro-style attack and Mattox may have to adjust what he normally likes to do in order to make the most of punishing sophomore. Of course that was going to happen anyways.

Kirk Johnson

Johnson is the oft-forgotten 2015 recruit who is quietly one of the better athletes on the entire team, simply waiting for his chance to show his wares.

Johnson has the ability to start and stop on a dime in a way that very few football players at any position can match. At 5-foot-11, 205, he isn’t quite built to take the punishment of a full season with 200 carries but that’s not happening while sharing the backfield with these QBs and fellow RBs anyways.

Because of his tremendous agility and acceleration and willingness to run hard through tackles, there’s really no running scheme where Johnson shouldn’t be able to thrive. Getting him into space where he can dominate 1-on-1 matchups should be a priority for the staff both in the coming year and in the next few before his eligibility expires.

As a HS recruit there was a lot said about his abilities to run routes out of the backfield, but Texas’ current offense makes very little use of that ability and this team doesn’t really need to be looking for more play designs that require the QB to throw the ball in 2016. In an Air Raid that would use the RB in the run game and as a receiver, he’d be a dark horse to win the starting job but in Texas’ 2016 rotation he’ll probably start as a change of pace back and have to earn more carries due to injuries or demonstrated explosiveness.

Kirk Johnson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Kirk Johnson. (Will Gallagher/IT)

If he can’t find the field regularly at running back, they should ask him if he wants to play WR or move to defense and potentially put on a redshirt because he’d probably be the most athletic safety on the roster with the possible exception of Brandon Jones. Most likely they’ll keep him around at RB in the hopes that when the offense is able to add more passing elements in future seasons, he’ll become a hybrid weapon in the mold of Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.

There’s a lot here to work with

Texas has a full stable of truly dangerous runners to utilize behind an imposing OL in 2016 and there’s a good chance that as many as four different players might get 100 carries. Foreman will probably step into the role as the primary back but there’s no chance the staff misses the chance to feed Warren early and often.

Because the alternative is a shaky senior or a rail-thin freshman and because he can help put these backs in good position to make hay with his own legs, Heard will probably continue to get a large share of carries as well.

Texas may still fail to see a single runner hit the 1,000-yard mark (hasn’t happened since Jamaal Charles in 2007, eight seasons ago) but it will be due to an abundance of quality options rather than an inability to win the point of attack. Texas will continue to improve in the run game in 2016, hopefully those other things start to sort themselves out as well.