- Carter Strickland, Reporter, HornsNation
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AUSTIN, Texas -- D.J. Monroe has spent his career running around things.
Defenders being the No. 1 thing. The playbook being the second. Now the Texas hybrid back has taken a decidedly more direct approach.
"They tell me to play like I'm 250 [pounds]," he said.
They, being his teammates, told him just the right thing. Monroe, all 175 pounds of him, bounced and bullied his way into the end zone in the opening game, proving that his style, while fleet, also had some flex behind it. He added another touchdown run against New Mexico.
But it might have been what the fifth-year senior told himself that mattered more. The constant what-if player, who admitted that in past years he was not familiar with the entire playbook, started to operate off the field with the same sense of urgency his running style brings on the field.
"The one thing I appreciate about D.J. is that early in his career he was trying to get his feet settled in to Texas and just growing up and maturing," co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said. "I have noticed that, in the past two years, what he says he does, and when he says he is going to go do something he does it 100 percent."
Take Monroe's switch to wide receiver. He was a player with suspect hands. After his switch to receiver in the spring, he figured he had the summer to prove to coaches that finally he would be a reliable weapon in the passing game. He also decided he would need some help, so he enlisted strength coach Bennie Wylie.
"From catching tennis balls to using the little spark ball with the swirls that are green, red and blue to keep my eyes focused," Monroe said of his training methods. "I tried to catch 100 tennis balls with Bennie a day. He would not throw a football, he would throw a tennis ball to me while I ran my swing routes and my slants. It helped me focus, and I had to make sure it was one of the things I got better at."
It seems to be working. Texas went to him on a 15-yard pass in the opener, signaling that when Monroe comes in the game it is no longer a tip of the hand that a speed sweep is coming. Now there is variety, as well as competition.
Daje Johnson, a freshman, brings a similar skill set. In fact, with Johnson suspended against Wyoming, Monroe was in the spotlight as the hybrid back and responded with 51 combined yards and a touchdown. Against New Mexico, Johnson stole the show with 70 combined yards and a touchdown compared to Monroe's 10 yards.
The coaching staff, much like it is doing with the running backs, plans to mix and marry Monroe and Johnson to different packages. And, much like the running backs, there does not appear to be any surface tension between the players when it comes to playing time.
"The guy is good," Monroe said of Johnson. "I would love to see anyone play. Speed is speed and if we've got it, use it. I am all about winning, and that's what it is with us right now. It is all about winning. We are brothers."
That mentality has led to Monroe -- at one time considered an unlikely tutor -- showing Johnson the ropes.
"I take him under my wing and [say], 'This is how I do it. I don't know how you do it but this is how I ran the package,'" Monroe said. "If it is my package, he backs me up in it, and if it is his package, I back him up in it. There is new stuff that the coaches come up with and we just emphasize: If it is his package I need to learn it too, and if it is my package he will say, 'How do you run that swing?' "
If Monroe is worried about losing touches to Johnson as the season progresses, he's not showing it.
"It is not about me right now," he said. "I would rather leave here with that great bowl game we played or possibly getting back to the national championship. I will be happier and more excited about that than worrying about me getting all the reps."
And, after all, if sharing time and being a hybrid back doesn't work for Monroe, there's always fullback.
"[In fall camp] we were telling him, 'You know, D.J., you're going to win big this year. We see it. You've packed on some weight. You've got some muscle,' " running back Joe Bergeron said. "So he kind of uses that to his advantage now. He's not afraid to dip his shoulder."
He's not afraid to attack things head on anymore, either.
21hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler