Game-week RB, OL depth problems cloud offseason optimism

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For most of the offseason, the main question surrounding the Texas Longhorns was if they were indeed back as junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger exclaimed following the Sugar Bowl.

Heading into a season-opening match-up against Louisiana Tech, Texas is working to answer two questions without clear solutions; who is healthy enough to play running back and who can serve as a reliable backup offensive lineman?

Texas head coach Tom Herman announced Monday walk-on Jarrett Smith would join senior Kirk Johnson and junior Daniel Young as running backs out for the season opener. Herman also stated freshman Roschon Johnson practiced at running back in the last week rather than quarterback in order to bolster depth.

The two backs presumed to be at the top of the depth chart, sophomore Keaontay Ingram and freshman Jordan Whittington, are practicing in non-contact jerseys to make sure their bumps and bruises don’t worsen prior to the first game of the year, per Herman.

“The level of concern is high,” Herman said. “We were supposed to have five scholarship running backs, and if they all stayed healthy we would have had five.”

Instead, injuries decimated the depth in the room. Freshman Derrian Brown, who Herman said arrived on campus a few days ago, suffered a stroke in early 2019 and will not play this year. Young suffered a high ankle sprain last week, and Kirk Johnson’s sternoclavicular joint sprain from the first week of camp will keep him out for an extended amount of time.

Even walk-ons who have seen their snap count increase because of these injuries are on the mend. Before Jarrett Smith’s injury, fellow walk-on Jaren Watkins was hospitalized for precautionary reasons for a minor injury prior to his release on August 13. These events led to walk-on defensive back Mason Ramirez changing positions from to running back before his senior season.

Ingram and Whittington, the two names at the top of Texas’ RB depth chart, are battling through minor ailments despite being the only two scholarship RBs slated to be active.

“Keaontay goes and twists his knee up, but he’s doing well,” Herman said. “Jordan is still fighting some residual effects from a sports hernia surgery that he had in high school. That flares up on him from time to time.”

Herman was asked if he considered moving freshman receiver Jake Smith to running back instead of Johnson. He said they didn’t feel it was a necessary move.

“He certainly would have been, could have been had the straits been more dire,” Herman said. “I think it was a wise move having Roschon knowing the offense, having been here an entire spring, (and) his acclimation to it. Jake’s head is spinning just trying to play slot receiver right now.”

Running back isn’t the only position with depth problems. The offensive line isn’t struggling with injuries outside of Reese Moore, who Herman announced will miss the first game. It’s facing a numbers problem.

Herman and his offensive staff prefer to have a group of at least eight offensive linemen they feel comfortable playing prior to each game. Earlier in preseason camp, Herman mentioned the need to find those two additional offensive lineman to add to a group that includes freshman Junior Angilau, sophomore Samuel Cosmi, juniors Derek Kerstetter and Denzel Okafor, and seniors Zach Shackelford and Parker Braun.

Parker Braun (Justin Wells/IT)

When asked Monday, Herman explained those additional offensive linemen have yet to emerge.

“No, that’s a big question mark to be honest with you,” Herman said. “We’ve got to grow up very quickly with the next group of guys at that position.”

Herman added they have not decided who the starting five will be from his listed group of six. On the depth chart released Monday, Cosmi was listed as starting left tackle, Angilau or Braun were listed as options at left guard, Shackelford was the starter at center, Kerstetter or Angilau were the right guard choices, and Okafor was the starter at right tackle.

That’s a group with of 59 career starts at Texas not including Braun’s 32 at Georgia Tech. Herman didn’t comment on the prowess of the first six offensive linemen, but like with running back, if anything happens to that first group he will be presented with difficult questions lacking depth will struggle to answer.