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Thursday, October 23, 2008
Unselfish Texas backs emerging as strength


Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

When Jamaal Charles declared for the NFL draft after last season, most thought the Texas running game left with him.

An untested group of young and seldom-used running backs was perceived as Texas' biggest offensive weakness coming into the season. But that collective lack of identity has helped forge a running attack that has been an underrated secret in the Longhorns' charge to top spot in the BCS standings.

 
 Dustin Bradford/Icon SMI
 Chris Ogbonnaya has bounced around several different positions before finally settling into the starting job as tailback.

Chris Ogbonnaya, Vondrell McGee and Cody Johnson have shared carries and playing time throughout the season. Texas coach Mack Brown calls his collection of running backs the most unselfish group he's ever coached.

"It's been unbelievable," Brown said. "You hear nothing from them about who's playing enough, who's carrying the ball. In fact, it hasn't been mentioned this year. Maybe for the first time in my coaching career, somebody hasn't said, 'Why aren't I getting it more? Why aren't I getting more touches?'"

Some of that attitude stems from Ogbonnaya, who has bounced around several different positions before finally settling into the starting job as tailback the last two games.

"What I've tried to do is just remain consistent and be a good example for all of the other backs and the other guys on the team," Ogbonnaya said. "If you continue to work hard and rededicate yourself, you'll be successful."

And maybe re-invent yourself as well.

Ogbonnaya came to Texas as a projected wide receiver after playing quarterback at Strake Jesuit High School in Houston. He moved to tailback after arriving at college and then switched to fullback to go with Charles in the backfield. A stint as a third-down back followed because of his prowess as a receiver.

But after Charles left, coaches came to him with the idea of moving back to tailback. Ogbonnaya lost weight and has emerged as a surprising force in Texas' backfield as a runner and receiver.

"I've just wanted to help us out as much as I could, whether in rushing, pass receiving or blocking," said Ogbonnaya, who made his first career start earlier this season against UTEP in his 34th career game. "Every part is intricate. I've just tried to do what they've asked me, whatever the role."

Before the season, Fozzy Whittaker was expected to emerge as the starter because of his speed and explosiveness. He's struggled with a knee injury sustained late in training camp and has been limited to 14 carries this season.

McGee was considered to be a better move-the-pile runner, Ogbonnaya a best receiving threat and pass blocker and Johnson as a bruising goal-line specialist.

The individual talents of any of those three backs weren't expected to send shivers through too many defensive coordinators. But collectively, they've been than Brown ever could have imagined heading into Saturday's game against No. 6 Oklahoma State.

The trio of Johnson, Ogbonnaya and McGee has combined to rush for 742 yards and 14 touchdowns. All three backs are ranked among the Big 12's top 25 rushers. And if their contributions were combined, they would rank second in the conference and among the top 20 rushers nationally in rushing.

"The thing has been that we've all given good consistent effort and just tried to do the game plan," Ogbonnaya said. "When any of us have had the opportunity to play, we've tried to do it. Consistency has been the thing that all of us have strived for."

Whittaker returned to the lineup last week, rushing for 72 yards on 12 carries after missing the previous four games. His comeback will only boost the strength of the group whose blue-collar mindset mirrors that of the Longhorns.

The unselfish attitude of the running backs was clear to Brown after watching his team practice earlier this week.

"These guys came out and practiced like it was OU week," Brown said. "I think it's a compliment to their character more than anything else. They want to play. A lot of these guys have waited their turn and it's their turn now."