Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Back when he was growing up, Texas center Chris Hall remembers what football used to be all about.
In those earlier days, Hall’s team would line up and usually run right behind him. Something about being one of the biggest players on the field made his teams rely on smash-mouth football heavy on running action.
But as he’s grown and matured, football has evolved a little bit for Hall.
“As you get older, those quarterbacks and receivers get a whole lot better,” Hall said, chuckling. “In sandlot, you rely on the bullish plays. But it’s not so much in college these days.”
That idea permeates Texas’ offensive philosophy this season. The Longhorns have one of their weakest running games in recent history, but are still piling up more points than any other team in the nation.
Texas leads the nation with a scoring average of 41.8 points per game. If that trend continues, it would be one of the three highest scoring averages in the last 56 years of Texas football. And most amazingly, the running game could be headed to one of the 10 worst seasons during that period.
The Longhorns are averaging 155.9 rushing yards per game to rank 49th nationally. In five games against Big 12 foes, that figure drops to 110.6 rushing yards per game and a pedestrian 3.1 yards per carry. And in game situations where they are winning by 14 points or less, the Longhorns are averaging only 3.3 yards per carry.
The Longhorns don’t have a back ranking among the top 15 rushers in the Big 12. Leading rusher Vondrell McGee is averaging 39.29 yards per game and would produce a tad more than 550 yards rushing if the Longhorns play a 14-game season of 12 regular season games, the Big 12 championship game and a bowl game. That would be the lowest rushing total to lead the Longhorns since Butch Hadnot rushed for 501 yards in 11 games in 1991.
The Longhorns have overcome that rushing deficiency by deftly using a short-passing offense in place of a running game. Colt McCoy throws the largest percentage of his passes in the nation near the line of scrimmage, where quick receivers like Jordan Shipley, Malcolm Williams, Marquise Goodwin, John Chiles and James Kirkendoll have been able to turn these darts into the backbone of the Longhorns’ offense.
In the last several weeks, early-season sensation Dan Buckner has seen his playing time diminish as the Longhorns rely more on tight end Greg Smith. The thought was that it would result in stronger run blocking and better pass protection for McCoy.
The better protection has materialized and the Longhorns have what coach Mack Brown likes to call the extra edge that has provided misdirection runs for D.J. Monroe and Goodwin in recent weeks.
But Brown has also hinted at a change in the featured running back. The Longhorns running game has featured a mismatch of producers because of injuries and production issues. At various times in the season, McGee, Tre’ Newton and Fozzy Whittaker all were considered as the starter at tailback.
But in the last week, a new flavor du jour has stepped up. Bullish 5-foot-11, 250-pound Cody Johnson has emerged as a potential starter after bunching several strong recent games.
Johnson has lost weight and has looked to be the powerful back that coaches imagined when he appeared to have the inside track for the starting position midway through spring ball.
Nagging injuries and questions about his weight kept him from regaining anything more than a role as a short-yardage specialist earlier in the season.
But a slimmer Johnson has stepped up and is providing exactly what Texas coaches want. He matched his season high with 31 yards and scored twice to spark the Longhorns’ victory over Oklahoma State last week.
Brown has said that the goal of Texas running game has boiled down to a simplistic three-step process. He wants a play to either produce four yards, a first down or a touchdown. And if those factors are considered, Johnson has been the most consistent back for the Longhorns all season.
“He’s lost 20-something pounds now. He’s protecting the ball better and he’s a powerful runner,” Brown told reporters earlier this week. “What we’re all about right now is that four-yard run, and that’s something he really does well.”
Johnson is still listed as a co-starter with Whittaker, although it will be interesting to gauge the Texas rotation in Saturday’s game against a UCF defense that ranks ninth nationally in rushing defense.
“We’re going to let those guys battle this week and see how it shakes out,” Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “And one of those two will start.”
McCoy said the game against the Knights can provide them with an opportunity to test their running game production -- an aim he hopes to continue as the team’s goals will mushroom in November and beyond.
“Central Florida has nothing to do with the Big 12, but it’s still a big game for us,” McCoy said. “When you look at the (Oklahoma State) film, we played better, executed and did some good things, but there are still things we can get better at.
“We can play better, move the ball better. So we’ve got to get back to work and play better this week.”