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HOUSTON — In Stan Drayton’s first season as running backs coach for the Longhorns, the leading rusher on the team was freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger. In his second season as RB coach, Tre Watson and Keaontay Ingram combined for over 1500 yards, but Ehlinger’s rushing touchdown total alone doubled the combined touchdown total for both Watson and Ingram.
Drayton is aware of what Ehlinger brings to the table in his style of play, his unique rushing ability, and his demeanor as a team leader. He’s also aware it would bode well for the Longhorns if his position group was able to take pressure off of Ehlinger.
“We are trying to take over this run game,” Drayton told reporters at THSCA Coaching School Monday. “We want that pressure in our room, running the football. We use that and we have fun with Sam, but at the same time, we’re trying to outdo Sam Ehlinger.”
He immediately clarified that stats and usage for running backs were not more important than the team winning football games, and that the QB run game is an important part of the Longhorn offense. However, he noted running backs are a prideful group, and it was not only a short blow to his ego but to his players’ egos that the quarterback was the leading rusher two seasons ago.
“There’s great motivation to come in here and say ‘hey, quarterback lead the team in rushing,'” Drayton said. “‘What are we doing in here and how are we going to change it?'”
Drayton is excited about the four main pieces in his group: sophomore Keaontay Ingram, freshman Jordan Whittington, senior Kirk Johnson, and junior Daniel Young.
While plenty of attention this offseason was directed toward the potential instant impact of Whittington, who Drayton compared as a first-year to player to Brian Westbrook, and the continued development of Ingram, Drayton didn’t want to omit the senior who has been limited for much of his Longhorn career.
“If you really watched with a close eye, there was Kirk Johnson,” Drayton said. “No one’s heard that name come up in a long time because he’s been hurt. He’s healthy now. He was as explosive as those two guys you mentioned at times in the spring.”
He also made sure Young’s name was not left out.
“You can’t rule out a Danny Young, who has a role,” Drayton said. “He’s a young man who’s played in the Texas Bowl, he’s played in the Sugar Bowl. He’s been that guy that has been very serviceable and really allows me to coach that position with some comfort knowing that he’s in that room. I feel good about all four of those guys having a role.”
With two potential stars likely in the first two spots of the depth chart, Drayton was asked if he saw an opportunity for both of them to be on the field at the same time.
He noted that formationally, having two tailbacks in the game somewhat limits what the Longhorns would prefer to do on offense. However, both bring versatile wide receiver ability to the running backs room. Drayton mentioned Ingram often worked at receiver for his Carthage Bulldogs during their offseason, including at events like the State 7-on-7 championships. In addition, much of Whittington’s time in the Cuero Gobbler offense was spent as a receiver, not in the backfield.
Putting both on the field at the same time cuts into the depth at the position, but due to the versatility at the top it may be an option Drayton and the offensive staff utilizes in the upcoming season.
As the lone offensive coach from Texas made available to reporters, Drayton fielded questions about the rest of the Longhorn offense. He praised the efforts of senior receivers Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay in the offseason, and explained there was “a lot of great competition that’s going to happen in that slot position.”
With that said, the first person and sometimes the only person to touch a ball on a given play for Texas is Ehlinger. After being part of the staff who coached Tim Tebow at Florida, Drayton said he has observed some of the similarities between the former Heisman Trophy winner and his current quarterback.
“The very first day I met Sam Ehlinger, I made that comparison,” Drayton said. “I made that very evident that he does remind me of Tim Tebow. He loves the game. The motivation was different between the two, but the passion comes out the same way. Obviously, they both have a gift of being able to run the ball and being productive running the football from that position.”
Tebow was notorious for some of his limitations in the passing game. Drayton made sure to not apply those same limitations to Ehlinger.
“Sam Ehlinger does a very good job in my opinion of managing the pass game,” Drayton said. “He really does understand it. He knows where guys need to be. He allows us to be as expansive as coaches from a schematic standpoint because he is a very sharp, smart football player in that respect. We’re not as limited.”
When the first whistle blows at the first practice on August 2, it’ll be the culmination of an offseason of work from both the offense and the defense. It’s something Drayton is ready to see especially after an offseason of development by the entire team.
“It’s been fun watching our culture get stronger and stronger, watching those kids bond closer and closer together,” Drayton said. “In my experience, that kind of deal when you start to see the players start to take ownership of the program, in my experience it’s what has produced championships at a steady rate.”