Nov. 9, 2008
Jonathan Mann, Texas Media Relations
The Texas running game is, needless to say, interchangeable. In 2008, the Longhorns have relied on multiple contributors to average over 174 yards on the ground.
On Saturday, the one-two punch of Vondrell McGee and Fozzy Whittaker combined for 25 carries and 132 yards in a 45-21 Longhorn victory over Baylor.
"Those two guys creating explosive plays for us on first and second downs really allows Chris to do what he does best," said running backs coach Major Applewhite. "There are some things that we still need to work on, but the running game took a step forward."
Whittaker, who has seen action in only four games this season thanks to injuries, got his first career start against the Bears. The redshirt freshman from Pearland has not disappointed in his limited workload, averaging six yards per carry on the year.
"It's exciting to see him get back out there because he's been hurt," McGee said of his fellow tailback. "But he always comes to practice, and practices hard. I think it's paying off now."
As a redshirt freshman last season, McGee was featured as the team's goal line running back and recorded eight rushing touchdowns, tied for fifth on UT's freshman list.
This year, he battled injuries of his own early in the season. The Longview native has appeared in all 10 games, but has increased his production in the second half of the season.
"I think the biggest gain is just being healthy and feeling better," Applewhite said of the duo's improvement. "Being healthy, both of their games have come along and we've gotten better at running the football."
The combo of Whittaker and McGee complements the skills of Ogbonnaya, who has caught three or more passes in seven games this season. More importantly, however, the tandem's success relieves Ogbonnaya of a workload that has been even heavier since he sustained an ankle injury during the Missouri game.
"Chris is a power back and he can catch the ball out of the backfield," McGee said. "Fozzy, with his speed, the defense can't run with him, they get tired. I think I have a little bit of both - a little speed and a little bit of power too. We just wear defenses down with that."
Ogbonnaya has supplied tutelage to the young backs both on the field and in the meeting room. While Whittaker and McGee are self-described as a little more tense as they go through their learning curve, Ogbonnaya brings a more relaxed approach to the table.
"Chris, he's the most composed," Whittaker said of his veteran mentor. "He's a senior and he's been through the years. He knows what's going to happen and what to look for. He's just spreading that on to us, passing the torch as he said yesterday. He's helping us look out for the future."
As for the here and now, Applewhite has harped on the importance of the little things. Ball security has been a priority, as well as a mainstay in practice.
"They've done a fantastic job with it, and that's about them," Applewhite said. "We put an emphasis on it in our room as an offense, but ultimately it's those guys during the week when we practice. It's them putting a conscious focus on it and understanding where it's going to pay off on Saturday."
Despite their improved numbers in rushing yards, when asked themselves, the young twosome stressed blitz-pickup as their biggest area of development since preseason.
"The biggest thing I've gained would probably be pass blocking," Whittaker said. "I still need to work on that more, but that's the biggest thing that Coach Applewhite has helped me improve on."
For Ogbonnaya, the picture looks clear for the Texas running game in seasons to come due to the current stable of young ball carriers.
"There is a goal of consistency that we try to have in our room, there should be no drop off," Ogbonnaya said. "As a senior, I only have a few more games here. It's so great to see what we have next year and what we'll have coming back in the next couple of years. It's very promising."