Precision and youth in Texas' run game

Texas' Kenny Vaccaro speaks the same way he plays -- head-on with words that carry some pop.

"Last year, we weren't even respecting the run in practice," the safety said. "And a lot of teams didn't."

There was no reason to respect the Texas run game. The offensive line was patchwork. The running backs were limping. The play calling was predictable. Add it all up and Texas produced 150 yards per game on the ground. Six other teams in the Big 12 were better.

That has to change if Texas' fortunes are to change this year, the coaches and players have said. In fact, the priority is so high for the run game that establishing it has worked its way into this season's three offensive tenets.

"We want to be able to run the ball effectively," said co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. "Those three things have really been the topics we talked about each practice: Do well in the red zone, take care of the football, run the football -- be physical doing that -- and if we do those three things, then we've got a chance."

Texas has a chance because it appears to have some stability in the offensive line and a trio of running backs. The first of those backs is a healthy Fozzy Whittaker.

"I don't think anybody (in camp) stood out more than Fozzy," Vaccaro said.

Longhorns coach Mack Brown has also been impressed with Whittaker.

"He's much stronger than he was before, and we knock on wood, he's been a good player," Brown said. "He's just had trouble staying healthy, and he's been hit every day, and he's hung in there and done a really good job for us."

But Whittaker's job is not just about running. The senior has been a tutor for two guys who might well take his snaps: freshmen Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron.

Mack Brown said Bergeron might be an under-the-radar guy because of the spotlight drawn by Malcolm Brown, but that he has proved he is worthy of playing time this season. Others agreed.

"He's difficult now to bring down," Harsin said. "He's a strong, powerful guy, and from just the knowledge standpoint of protections and all the different things we do with our backs, I thought he did a great job of handling those things."

As for Malcolm Brown, while it has yet to be determined whether he can live up to the hype, the early returns have been positive.

"Malcolm has got some special qualities of getting out and finding us some small holes that only he can fit through," Harsin said.

The thing that is more unique about this offense is that Texas is trying to find some more small holes in many different places. Harsin will rely on multiple sets as well as different formations and wrinkles to get the runners into space. Additionally, players have choices that can allow for a little freelancing.

But with two young backs, redshirt freshman Dominic Espinosa starting at center and true freshman Jaxon Shipley starting at receiver, Texas is trying to guard against the missed assignments that can come with so much youth.

"Obviously we want to be more complex," quarterback Garrett Gilbert said. "We want to move around but we also need to be very sound. So it's not just about the movement and confusion. We need to be very sound. So I think that's something that each of our guys has really taken upon themselves is to learn their responsibilities, and that way we can work as one cohesive unit."

That's easy to do in practice. In a game there will undoubtedly be issues -- some major, some minor and most only noticed by the coaches when they watch film.

"We've got to put them in game situations and see how they're going to handle it when we play on Sept. 3, and see what issues come up and how we're going to correct those things," Harsin said. "But they know how to play football. All those guys are smart, tough, physical guys. We've got to put them in situations where they can be successful and go out there and play and learn from that."

Carter Strickland covers University of Texas football and recruiting for HornsNation

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