From the Ground Up

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Foswhitt Whittaker, 28, strides past a Texas Tech defender during a match-up last season. Whittaker is the senior leader of an otherwise young, unproven corp of running backs. (Daily Texan file photo)

Photo Credit: Caleb Bryant Miller | Daily Texan Staff

Mack Brown knows what it takes to build a successful program: a powerful running game.

During his first year at Texas in 1998, the Longhorns averaged 204.2 rushing yards per game en route to a nine-win season. Brown has coached four teams in 13 seasons at UT that averaged more than 200 yards per game on the ground. Three of those four teams won at least 10 games, including a BCS National Championship in 2005.

Now, coming off a disastrous 5-7 campaign in 2010 that saw no semblance of a legitimate ground attack, the onus is on the running game to restore the program to national prominence.

“We are running the ball more,” Brown said. “Hopefully, we will run it better. Hopefully, that will take the pressure off whoever plays quarterback.”

With an unreliable run game a year ago, opposing defenses made the Longhorns one-dimensional and were free to tee-off on first-year starting quarterback Garrett Gilbert.

Senior running back Fozzy Whittaker saw first-hand what a non-existent ground attack will do to an offense as the Longhorns averaged just 23.8 points per game, the lowest mark in Brown’s tenure.

This season, Texas is banking on Whittaker and a pair of freshmen standouts in the backfield to return the ground attack to the standards set before them while alleviating Gilbert from the stress of carrying the offense.

“It’ll take some of that pressure off the quarterback, where we don’t have to throw every single play, and we don’t have to try to take shots [downfield] every single play,” Whittaker said. “I feel like the run game is going to help the offense be more balanced ... We can try to control the football by staying on the ground and being a productive offense and being balanced so the defense can’t focus on one thing.”

It’s been a while since Texas was balanced on offense.

The rushing attack has tailed off in recent years, with the Longhorns employing a spread offense that relied heavily on quick passes. The last time Texas averaged at least 200 rushing yards per game was in 2007. During that same year, the program had its last 1,000-yard rusher with Jamaal Charles.

But after last season’s debacle ended with a loss to Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night, the Longhorns realized they needed to start from the ground up.

“It was a big focus when we stepped off the field last Thanksgiving,” said senior left tackle Tray Allen. “As an offensive line, we knew what we had to gear up and get ready for. It was our focus all summer, all spring: running the ball and being a tougher offensive line.”

Gilbert struggled through his first full year as the Longhorns’ starter under center, throwing 10 touchdowns against 17 interceptions as Texas failed to win at least 10 games for the first time since 2000.

Granted, Gilbert received little help from his offensive line and tailbacks.

Texas hopes new offensive coordinator Brian Harsin from Boise State will return emphasis on the run and bring better success for Gilbert and the team. Harsin is known for his prolific offenses at Boise State that were as balanced as they
were dangerous.

“The one thing is having some balance in there and having something in the run game to be able to go to,” Harsin said. “We try to put him in a good situation where he can have some success completing the football. All 11 guys have to be doing their jobs out there for everybody to be successful.”

Gilbert was rarely in a good situation a year ago with Texas often behind on the scoreboard, which forced the Longhorns to throw the ball to get back in the game. Opposing defensive coordinators could eliminate the threat of the run and then blitz from all angles, knowing the Longhorns needed to pass.

Now, though, Texas has more playmakers out of the backfield with highly touted Malcolm Brown and fellow freshman Joe Bergeron, who’s made a serious case for playing time throughout fall camp.

Armed with a stronger supporting cast, Gilbert thinks his junior campaign can erase the horrors of 2010.

“The quarterback position is about making plays, but I’ve got 10 great players around me,” Gilbert said. “So they make my job easier. I’ve got playmakers that can go make plays for me.”

Brown revamped his coaching staff this offseason, bringing in offensive line coach Stacy Searels from Georgia to toughen up the front five and bring an edge to the run game.

Under Searels’ direction, the Longhorns abandoned their zone-blocking schemes — instead it will run the
ball downhill.

“We’re pounding it; we’re going to hit it hard,” said senior left guard David Snow. “Coach Searels came in and changed all that.”

Brown has instituted a brick-by-brick approach for the Longhorns to return to the top of the college football landscape. He’s likened the 2011 season to his very first year on the 40 Acres back in 1998.

As was the case when he started to build his program at Texas, Brown will need a powerful running game once more if he hopes to rebuild this team.