- Carter Strickland, Reporter, HornsNation
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Malcolm Brown is missing.
Not from practice. He's there. Working with the other running backs, fully recovered from the ankle injury that cost him multiple games.
What he is working toward is another question. It has become clear that Brown, the leading rusher from a year ago and the leading rusher before he was injured at Oklahoma State, is the third option.
Against Iowa State, Brown didn't touch the ball until the second drive of the fourth quarter with Texas up 30-7. He finished with 10 carries.
Against, TCU, a game in which Texas only had 86 rushing yards and the longest two runs were by the quarterbacks, Brown never touched the ball.
Now headed into the game at No. 6 Kansas State, a team that gave up 342 rushing yards to Baylor, a passing team, co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin couldn't muster much of a definitive answer when asked if the sophomore would be involved in the game plan.
"I hope so," he said.
That's not a ringing endorsement for playing time. Instead the bells going off might be more alarm. The wonder around Texas had always been how Harsin could keep all three running backs involved.
Before the season started, Harsin seemed undaunted by the task. It was all about tying each player up with a neat little bow and putting him on the field to do what he does best.
"What is the best package for this player? And this player?" Harsin said in early August.
The last few times he has been asked about his wealth of talent, Harsin has not brought up "packages" and instead stated what everybody always knew to be true, "there's only one ball."
Yes, there is only one ball and Texas has two highly coveted running backs in Brown, ESPN's No. 2 running back recruit in 2011 and Johnathan Gray, ESPN's No. 1 running back recruit in 2012. Added to that is Joe Bergeron, who has built himself into a reliable inside runner. Plus Texas has Daje Johnson, a speed back who can stretch the field but so often is relegated to just stretching the fan base's imagination due to his lack of touches. And there is D.J. Monroe, who had three touchdowns in the first three games and has had three total carries since the fourth game of the season.
Incorporating all the elements is a difficult task. But $675,000, Harsin's annual compensation, is a large salary too.
It's also not as if there isn't a formula out there for success with three running backs.
In fact, there was one just across the sideline from Texas last Thursday. For three seasons (2009-'11), Gary Patterson managed the only offense in FBS that had three running backs gain more than 500 yards each and a quarterback who threw 190 or more completions. In 2011, TCU had three players rush for 700 or more yards and Casey Pachall completed 228 passes. TCU, which rushed for 217 yards in the win over Texas last Thursday, had a 36-3 record over that time period.
With two games remaining, Gray has 654 rushing yards, Bergeron 563 and Brown 276. Brown's injury certainly had something to do with that lower total. But he has been healthy the past two games and still only rushed for 31 yards, so it is also clear his lack of playing time is a coach's decision.
"It's nothing against Malcolm," Harsin said.
But he also said as he has made his game plans with Brown injured he started to form some faith with the other two running backs.
"Both those guys continue to play at a high level," Harsin said of Gray and Bergeron.
Gray does have 338 yards since being installed as the starter. Brown had 238 in the season's first three games despite only getting two carries for five yards against New Mexico. Bergeron averages 4.6 yards per carry. That's less than Brown's 5.5-yard average.
Those numbers have not factored into the equation when it comes to making a decision for playing time. For now, Brown's ability to contribute will continue to be evaluated during practice.
"He's getting himself back in the mix," Harsin said. "He has to continue to keep preparing well, practicing hard, gets his opportunities in games to make them count.
"We evaluate as the week goes on in practice how they look, how they're competing, operating in the offense that week,'' he continued. "We try to make sure on Thursday we're getting the right guys in on the right plays."
Last Thursday, right or wrong, Texas didn't have Brown in on any plays.