Cody Johnson

Senior Cody Johnson (11) faces off against Baylor (Daily Texan file photo from December 3, 2011).

Photo Credit: Lawrence Peart | Daily Texan Staff

Not many players that lead their team in a rushing as a junior suddenly switch positions before their senior season. But that’s what Cody Johnson did.

Johnson rushed for a team-high 592 yards in 2010 when Texas turned in its first losing season since 1997 before making the move to fullback before his final season as a Longhorn. Head coach Mack Brown and former offensive coordinator Greg Davis had unsuccessfully attempted to adjust the offense to emphasize the running game more. But when Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron were set to join Texas as freshmen last season, the Longhorns gained the personnel necessary to focus on its rushing attack more.

“When [Malcolm Brown] has the ball, he’s going to finish all the way to the end zone,” Johnson said of the rookie tailback last year. “For a freshman to come in and do what he’s doing, and as for Joe too, it’s just phenomenal.”

Johnson stepped aside and didn’t just help Brown and Bergeron by showing them the ropes when they arrived on the 40 Acres, but moved to a position where, at fullback, he’d be literally paving the way for their success.

Now Johnson, who is listed as the fifth-best fullback NFL Draft prospect by ESPN guru Mel Kiper Jr., is set to embark on a professional football career. Considering the fact that less than five fullbacks have been selected in three of the last four drafts, Johnson has a chance to not get picked this week. But if he signs with a team as an undrafted free agent, he’ll have a good shot to make an NFL roster, especially now that the 5-foot-11, 250-pounder is at a position that has maximized his draft stock.

“You help block for someone to score. You’re scoring with them,” Johnson said. “We’ve all got to be strong. You can’t break down.”

Johnson’s decision to switch spots on the football field should pay dividends for him as he pursues a professional career and paid off last year, as evidenced by how productive guys like Brown and Bergeron were in their first year at Texas. The Longhorns’ run game wouldn’t be poised for a great 2012 year and Johnson wouldn’t have as good of a chance to get drafted. This was not lost on Johnson.

“I think [my role] has been increased,” Johnson said last year. “I’ve been put in a new spot. I don’t think it’s been decreased at all. I’ve been given a better opportunity.”

Brown, before suffering from a turf toe injury for most of the second half of the year, was on pace to run for 1,000 yards last year at one point. When Bergeron filled in for the ailing Brown, he nearly ran for 200 yards, breaking out for 191 and three touchdowns in a 52-20 rout of Texas Tech. Texas rushed for a whopping 439 yards that game but, incredibly, wasn’t as many as the 441 the Longhorns racked up the week before in a 43-0 victory over Kansas.

Johnson didn’t get a single carry in either of those contests but was instrumental in allowing Texas to put up those gaudy numbers.

“That was a great move by the offensive staff putting him there,” said running back Fozzy Whittaker, who was also a senior last year. “He’s a smart player. He knew what to do and he knew how to get it done. Having somebody like that blocking for you always makes you more confident.”

As he spent most of last season blocking, Johnson had a career-low 48 carries, nearly three times as less than the previous year. One of his best came against Kansas State, when he broke through the line of scrimmage on a third-and-one play in the fourth quarter. With Texas trailing 17-10, Johnson had nothing but green grass in front of him but was caught from behind and settled for a 55-yard scamper. The Longhorns settled for a field goal on that drive and fell to the Wildcats, 17-13. But thanks in large part to Johnson, were able to run for more than 200 yards per game last year for the first time since 2007, 50 more than they averaged in 2010.

“We’re going to run the ball. That’s what we’re going to do no matter what,” Johnson said. “We try to control the clock. We try to keep our defense off the field. We want to be able to run it. That’s what we concentrate on. We have to run the ball to win.”

Thanks to Johnson and his move to fullback, Texas’ run game is better heading into next season (especially with Brown and Bergeron fully recovered from the injuries they suffered last season) and Johnson’s prospects of a professional career are in a better place.

Printed on Thursday, April 26, 2012 as: Johnson transitions to fullback, NFL

Texas players celebrate winning the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl over the California Golden Bears. The Longhorns triumphed with a final score of 21-10.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

SAN DIEGO--The opportunities kept coming for the Texas Longhorns, and when they finally capitalized on a takeaway, UT ended its season in dominating fashion.

Texas forced five California turnovers, including four fumbles, and pulled away from the Golden Bears in the second half to win the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, 21-10, on Wednesday night at Snapdragon (Qualcomm Stadium).

"This has got us headed in the right direction," said Texas coach Mack Brown, who improved to 9-4 in bowl games at UT.

After failing to convert the first three takeaways into points, Longhorns running back Cody Johnson rumbled for a 4-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that capped a 3-play, 44-yard drive following UT's third fumble recovery.

The Longhorns (8-5) forced a pair of turnovers in the first half: Quandre Diggs' team-high fourth interception, and a fumble recovery by Calvin Howell. Still, Texas couldn't capitalize and the takeaways led to a punt and a missed field goal from 38 yards. Reggie Wilson fell on another Cal fumble in the third quarter, but the Longhorns again failed to get points out of it.

"We didn't take advantage of the turnovers early in the game," Brown said. "But the defense just took over. We made some good adjustments at halftime and made some plays."

While the defense was busy wreaking havoc in the Bears' backfield, the Texas offense struggled to find any sort of rhythm. UT was sloppy in the first half, with six penalties for 40 yards, including an illegal formation that wiped out a first down on a fake punt. The Longhorns mustered only seven yards in the first quarter and went three-and-out on four of their first five drives.

With freshman quarterback David Ash unable to move the ball in his sixth career start (and first since Nov. 19 against Kansas State), the Longhorns needed all the chances they could get. And the defense delivered with its seventh game with at least two takeaways.

"They put their hands on the ball, hats on the ball and stripped it," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "We didn't do a good job of protecting the ball."

Stagnant on offense for most of the first half, the Longhorns used a trick play to reach the end zone. Wide receiver Jaxon Shipley took the ball on an end around, and then threw to a wide-open Ash for a 4-yard score to put Texas in front, 7-3. Shipley's third touchdown pass of the year was an exclamation point on a 4-play, 48 yard drive that had more first downs (2) than the Longhorns managed in their opening five possessions (1).

Texas outscored Cal, 21-7, after its dreadful first quarter. The Longhorns defense only budged on the Bears' first drive of each half, surrendering a 47-yard field goal in the first quarter and a four-yard touchdown run in the third.

Ash connected with Marquise Goodwin for a 47-yard score on UT's first possession of the third quarter. His first touchdown pass in six starts put Texas ahead, 14-10, providing a swift response after Cal (7-6) briefly took the lead with a touchdown to open the second half.

Texas did not have a turnover for the first time in one of his starts and Ash was 14 of 23 for 142 yards.

"The Longhorns are on their way up, pretty soon we'll be back in the BCS," said Ash, who was named the game's offensive MVP.

Goodwin sparked the Longhorns in the second half, first with his touchdown grab and then with a 47-yard run that set up Johnson's score. The wide receiver nearly skipped his junior season to focus on his track and field career, but rejoined the team after the season-opener--a decision that certainly paid off in the season-finale.

"What Marquise has done this year is unbelievable," Brown said. "To come back and show his passion to play has been unbelievable. He saved us because we weren't very deep at wide out. He can change a game."

Texas limited Cal to 195 total yards (188 pass, 7 rush) and sacked Cal quarterback Zach Maynard six times.

Senior running back Foswhitt Whittaker makes a cut against a Texas Tech defender. Whittaker is expected to start in week one against Rice.

Photo Credit: Derek Stout | Daily Texan Staff

While so many people choose to blame last season’s offensive disaster on quarterback Garrett Gilbert, it would be unfair to do so without remembering that he had little to no ground game relief.

In 12 games, Texas averaged about 150 rushing yards per game. For the Longhorns to get back to a bowl, that number needs to rise by 50. Even the best of quarterbacks need some help.

Gilbert should get that from a group of complimentary backs: Fozzy Whittaker, Cody Johnson, Traylon Shead, Jeremy Hills and D.J. Monroe.

Forgetting somebody? Oh yes, that Malcolm Brown fellow.

Whittaker, the fifth-year senior, looks like the starting tailback entering the Sept. 3 opener against Rice. But given his injury-riddled past — he has missed some amount of time in each of his three seasons — he’ll need to split a lot of carries to preserve his health, and that’s where Malcolm Brown (if Texas fans have their way) comes in. The freshman from Cibolo Steele High School enters Austin with soaring expectations not seen since Cedric Benson’s first year one decade ago. Whether or not he’ll be able to accomplish what he did in high school — 6,663 career rushing yards and 86 touchdowns — remains to be seen, although head coach Mack Brown did his best to slow down the hype machine a bit at Big 12 Media Days, saying “he had a good high school career, but we won’t know how good he is until he puts the pads on.”

Whittaker has been helping Malcolm Brown get adjusted to the feel of college life and has even made him feel more comfortable in a uniform. When he got to campus, he asked Whittaker if jersey number 28 (the number he wore at Cibolo Steele) was available.

“I told him I had worn it the past few seasons, but that I might be able to give it to him,” Whittaker said.

The switch made sense for both sides, as Whittaker will wear number 2 this season, which is what he wore in high school at Pearland.

“Changing numbers works for him, and it works for me,” he said.

Johnson swapped numbers as well this offseason, going from 31 to 11, but he made a bigger change too, switching from tailback to fullback. The 5-foot-11-inch, 250 pound bruiser shouldn’t have any problems with run or pass blocking, and he’ll still be used in goal line situations.

“Cody will do what we ask him to,” Mack Brown said. “We’re not worried about that.”

Shead and Hills provide depth at tailback. Both redshirted last season — Hills in order to preserve two more years of eligibility and Shead to help get acclimated to big-time college football after coming from tiny Cayuga High School. Hills is the younger brother of former Longhorn and current Steeler offensive lineman Tony Hills, and Shead, like Malcolm Brown, enjoyed a historic high school career, setting the state record for career yardage.

There is also the curious case of D.J. Monroe, last year’s fan favorite and a lightning rod of (former offensive-coordinator) Greg Davis resentment. In limited touches, Monroe did special things with the football. But that’s what irritated fans so much: his touches were never anything more than limited. Monroe lacks the size to be an every-down back or even in contention for a spot in the regular rotations but could thrive in special packages to utilize his speed: sweeps, screens and bubble passes.

Six guys who expect the ball might sound like a crowd, but the Longhorns need all the help they can get in order to get back to running the ball.

“Our running game has been inconsistent since Jamaal Charles left,” Mack Brown said. “We have to get back to running it well and being a more physical team.”

Printed on Thursday, July 28, 2011 as: Revamped run game focused on production to relieve quaterbacks

When time expired in Texas’ 51-17 victory over Florida Atlantic, a jubilant Malcolm Williams sprinted from the sideline to the bleachers to celebrate with fans.

“It was finally time to have fun,” said Williams, who was on the verge of tears a week earlier after Texas’ fourth consecutive loss.

Finally getting to watch the lighting of the Tower after the victory was an emotional sight for both the players and coaches. The sentiment that the win came against a lowly non-conference, 4-6 team was non-existent in Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium where the Longhorns (5-6, 2-5) had not won in more than two months.

“None of this had to do with who we were playing,” head coach Mack Brown said. “We’ve lost to some poor teams this season – tonight was about us.”

Facing the 63rd-ranked Florida Atlantic defense gave the Longhorns’ offense plenty of confidence throughout the game. Texas gained a total of 522 yards, including a balanced 263 passing and 259 rushing. Garrett Gilbert had his best game in a Texas uniform, completing 15-of-21 passes for 263 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions and rushing for 60 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries.

He played “near perfect,” by Brown’s standards, and the sophomore quarterback described the celebratory post-game locker room, something he hasn’t seen much this season.

“The excitement in there was awesome,” Gilbert said. “It was definitely something we could all get used to.”

One of the biggest departures from the earlier woes of 2010 was an established rushing attack. Playing without previous starters Fozzy Whittaker and Tre’ Newton, Cody Johnson became Texas’ first 100-yard rusher of the season, powering his way to 124 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries.

“We needed a back around here that could carry the load and Cody did just that tonight,” Brown said. “I’m really proud of him.”

Johnson wore a huge grin after the game and seemed to breathe a sigh of relief with every answer.

“I feel great,” Johnson said. “It’s no secret that we’ve been on a losing streak, and there’s no better feeling than to end it here tonight. We came together on all pieces of the game, and that’s definitely something to be proud of.”

Even Texas’ receivers, who have been widely criticized for dropped passes and a lack of focus came through in the game. James Kirkendoll had a 63-yard reception, and Williams had the play of the year on a Hail Mary heave to the end zone to end the first half, big plays that gave Texas an edge that Florida Atlantic never could overcome.

“It’s crazy that it took us so long to finally get on this page,” Kirkendoll said. “But hey, you’re only as good as you’re last play.”

With bowl eligibility on the line, the Longhorns will look to carry that momentum into the regular season finale on Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day rivalry match against No. 19 Texas A&M, which began a game against No. 6 Nebraska an hour after Texas’ game was decided.

“We asked the guys to leave here and get a pencil and paper and watch Texas A&M to write down what they can do to help us win,” Brown said. “But this game definitely gives our guys tremendous confidence they’ll need.”

Quarterback Garrett Gilbert is not going to get benched. His interception to touchdown ratio may be 15:7, but he’s become a valuable part of the team’s running game.

Last Saturday night against Oklahoma State, he ran for 55 yards and became the team’s second leading rusher. He’s credited with 324 yards on 74 carries this season just behind tailback Cody Johnson’s 361 yards on 92 carries.

“But most of those were scrambles,” said Gilbert, who doesn’t consider himself a dual-threat quarterback. “That’s not really a situation you want to be in.”

That may be, but Gilbert is going to need to finish out the rest of the season as a runner since the tailback depth chart slimmed down this week with Tre’ Newton ending his football career because of a series of head injuries.

That means Fozzy Whittaker, Johnson, Chris Whaley and D.J. Monroe need to pick up their games.

Whittaker, who has the best yards-per-carry average on the team (4.5), went down Saturday in the first half because of a recurring stinger in his shoulder. Johnson hasn’t performed like the back the coaches thought they were getting in fall camp, but as of late he’s getting more reps. Whaley, a redshirt freshman, has only appeared in one game this season and as far as Monroe goes, he’s not even listed on this week’s updated depth chart despite leading the team with 9.4 yards per carry.

Senior send off

The senior class is only guaranteed eight more days, five more practices and two more games until their football career at Texas is over.

That is unless the seniors beat Florida Atlantic this Saturday and Texas A&M on Thanksgiving and become a 6-6 bowl-eligible team.

“The only thing we’re talking about now is getting the seniors out on the right note,” said receiver Malcolm Williams.

But despite the desperation surrounding Texas right now, the players and coaches are staying calm and positive.

“We can still have a winning season. We can still finish above .500,” said receiver James Kirkendoll, because if Texas wins its next two games plus a bowl game, it would end with a 7-6 record. “It’s crazy how you can go from playing in the national championship game to having a struggling season.”

Injury report

Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, who hasn’t played a snap since Nebraska, says his sprained ankle is feeling better than it has in weeks. Jeffcoat told the coaches and head trainer Kenny Boyd that he should be able to play Saturday against Florida Atlantic.

Starting left tackle Kyle Hix, who got a concussion in the second half of the Kansas State game and didn’t play last weekend against Oklahoma State, is also probable for the weekend.

Whittaker’s stinger is still nagging him, but he said Tuesday afternoon that his first practice back went well and he should be good to go for the game on Saturday.