AUSTIN, Texas -- When Texas was good, there was a versatility to its offense and the players within that offense.
Specifically at running back. Those players weren’t asked to just grab it and go. They were expected to be a part of the passing game as well.
There was Jamaal Charles against Ohio State in 2005, catching two passes for a combined 17 yards on what would be the game-winning drive. There was Fozzy Whittaker and Cody Johnson with five catches for 35 yards against Oklahoma in 2009, Texas’ last win against the Sooners.
Way back in 2000, as Texas’ decade at the top started, Hodges Mitchell not only led the Longhorns in rushing but was third on the team in receiving. And even last season, when Texas ultimately switched to a quasi-spread/up-tempo offense in the Alamo Bowl, there was Johnathan Gray making one of the plays that made the season at least moderately respectable with a 15-yard catch and run for a touchdown.
It’s that last play Texas wants more of as it moves into its new up-tempo offense and quite possibly back into the top 10.
"We are still fighting to find that tight end that can block in tight and still press and be able to press the field and get the ball down the field vertically," said Texas coach Mack Brown. "But at the same time, we feel like that our backs can get involved in the passing game."
Texas did a better job of getting those backs involved in the passing game in 2012 than it did in 2011 and 2010. Gray had 151 receiving yards, Malcolm Brown had 112 and Joe Bergeron had 84. But that total -- 347 yards -- still doesn’t equal the total of what Mitchell had -- 386 yards -- back when the quarterback really embraced and understood what a valuable asset dumping the ball off to the running back could be.
"Major [Applewhite] was one of the best I've ever seen at dropping the ball off to the backs," Brown said.
It just so happens that Applewhite is now standing behind quarterback David Ash working through the decision–making process with him. And standing beside those two are Gray, Brown and Bergeron, three players who have proven to have the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Gray has the best hands of the three even though it was Brown, in five fewer games, who led the Longhorns running backs in receptions with 15. It is not just the hands, but Gray’s ability to accelerate quickly and make people miss in space that should put him at the top of the reception totals for running backs in 2013.
Brown, who went from three catches his freshman season to the aforementioned 15, is better on swing passes with his momentum already headed downfield. The same goes for Bergeron as neither he nor Brown have that quick acceleration necessary to stop and then go after a dump pass. Still, both are a better alternative than a sack or a forced pass downfield.
The latter is something Texas is trying to get Ash to avoid as he moves into his third season as a starting quarterback at Texas. Mack Brown believes, by involving the backs in the passing game more, the junior will be able to do just that.
"That's one of the areas David will really step up, instead of forcing a ball deep," he said. "Major will really help him to drop the ball off to the backs and keep the chains moving."
Which is exactly what an offense that wants to average 80-plus plays a game will have to do if Texas intends to move back to the level it once was some four years ago.