Part of Big 12 Week.
It's not that anyone doubted Mack Brown's sincerity when he announced the death of the spread at Texas before last season. If anything, it was entirely in character: For most of his tenure in Austin, Brown has been a patron saint of burly I-formation workhorses and clouds of dust. (Or clouds of vulcanized rubber, as the case may be.) Between Ricky Williams, Hodges Mitchell and Cedric Benson, Texas produced a 1,000-yard back in each of Brown's first seven seasons, and that was before jumbo quarterback Vince Young added a new gear with back-to-back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns from 2003-05, for attacks that finished in the top 10 nationally in rushing offense all three years.
Under Brown and longtime offensive coordinator Greg Davis, the Longhorns were always about "balance." But until Colt McCoy began to rewrite the school passing records from the shotgun in 2008, balance always began with a first-rate threat in the backfield.
Last year, the response to Brown's back-to-basics rhetoric was more like, "He'll get over that soon enough." Remember, before the season, it hardly seemed like an offense that had any reason to shift gears: McCoy's accuracy and savvy had given rise to a prolific assault that was being bequeathed to the five-star arm of local hero Garrett Gilbert, who had acquitted himself well as a true freshman by not immediately assuming the fetal position when McCoy was knocked out of the BCS Championship Game. Gilbert was green, but he gave the offense a hook: After four years of running back by committee, diminishing returns and finally the wholesale embrace of the spread passing game, who else in the backfield seemed to offer as much promise?
Surprise: None of them. While Gilbert was sinking fast as one of the least efficient and most interception-prone passers in the country, the ground game plodded along exactly as it had for McCoy, as a muddled "change of pace" option that wasn't nearly effective enough to slow the Longhorns' pace to the bottom of the Big 12 South standings. For the fifth time in six years — the one exception being 2007, thanks to NFL-bound Jamaal Charles — the Longhorns had no good idea who their starting running back was going to be from week to week, or whether it mattered. The pedestrian Gilbert finished second on the team with 380 yards rushing for the season, and was leading the team on the ground as late as mid-November.
Which leaves the running back situation in 2011 more or less exactly where it's started every season since Cedric Benson left with more than 5,500 career yards to his name in 2004, only with more urgency: For the first time under Brown, even token optimism about the quarterback seems misplaced, especially when it comes to his ability to carry a brand new offensive scheme with an unproven supporting cast. Gilbert has already lost a pair of veteran targets in the last six weeks, and the post-spring hopes at running back seem to revolve around a pair of seniors who have specialized so far in short yardage (Cody Johnson) and nagging injuries (Fozzy Whittaker).
So as intense as the speculation has been over the ongoing quarterback derby at the start of camp, the fact is that Texas may be putting more stock than any offense in America this fall on a true freshman: Malcolm Brown, a solid, 220-pound Mack truck of a runner who arrives hyped as — and who the Longhorns sincerely hope turns out to be — 2011's answer to the best freshman back of 2010, Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore showed up at the perfect time give South Carolina the kind of running back it hadn't had since long before it joined the SEC 20 years ago, a legitimate between-the-tackles workhorse who was nearly automatic in short yardage and capable (and worthy) of shouldering 37 carries against Georgia, 23 against Alabama, 29 against Tennessee, 40 at Florida and 23 at Clemson, all Gamecock wins en route to their first division title. Others have gained more yards, but for his combination of production and intimidating physical presence, Lattimore was college football's best freshman back since Adrian Peterson. (See also: The infamous Maurice Clarett at Ohio State, before he became, you know, infamous.)
If he can overcome a nagging hamstring injury that's limited him during the first two weeks of practice, Brown is showing up at the perfect time, too, to take Texas back to its cloud-of-dust roots: The Longhorns not only sincerely hope but may sincerely need Brown to emerge in the same class for its offense to resemble anything like a "good" Texas offense by the usual standards. Gilbert (assuming he wins the job out of a four-man field that hardly distinguished itself in the spring) can still bounce back as a competent within-the-offense type as a junior — provided he's not forced to put the ball in the air 40 times per game, and that he occasionally gets to see a defense with a modicum of respect for the running game that didn't exist the last time around, and almost certainly won't again unless it's supplied by fresh blood.
Before last year, that just seemed like a good suggestion. Now, for Texas' return to the top of the Big 12 and possibly Mack Brown's continued longevity, it's closer to life or death.