The internet conversation is centered around the tight end position, where bad luck, bad development, and bad recruiting identification have emasculated a position once a traditional strength, but there's another component in the 2012 Longhorn running game where question marks abound.
Last year, Texas was blessed with two solid fullbacks: Cody Johnson - who also filled a role as short yardage back, offered some value in the passing game, and came on strong late as a lead blocker - and walk-on Jamison Berryhill, who flourished as a blocker until CoJo got the hang of things and learned to bring his feet after initial contact. With those seniors gone, Texas is grooming new talent to lead Brown, Bergeron, and Gray into the breach.
Blocking from the fullback position is a skill as much as a test of courage and good ones aren't common. It's about power (preferably in your ass and thighs), frame/hip bend (if you come high, you'll get stood up in the hole), coordination (you have to be able to acquire LBs and safeties in space), and mentality (enjoying constant, thankless, violent contact).
Let's talk about the candidates, and then possible work-arounds if we don't get what we need from the position.
Ryan Roberson - 5-10, 240
Roberson has the right fullback frame and the fifth year senior has a decent amount of seasoning, having been a frequent participant on Longhorn special teams. Not dynamic enough for LB, Roberson settled at FB, where seniority and fit suggest that he'll get first crack at leading for Harsin's run game. Roberson has never been contact shy, but I don't have much opinion of him beyond that. Ryan won't be asked to carry or catch the ball, but he will have to show dimensions yet unrevealed in order for our ground game to maximize.
The hard fact is that as a solid as Jamison Berryhill was as a lead blocker, Roberson was jumped on the depth chart by a walk-on last year. Unless Roberson brought it in the offseason and brings it in this Fall camp, the position becomes a likely workaround.
Chet Moss - 6-2, 240
Moss showed some skill and instinct at the LB position, but lacks the quickness and athleticism Diaz covets in his backers. Off to fullback he went. Those instincts do translate to FB - he's just changing the side of the ball, and the acquisition target goes from RB to LB, but much more is needed of the position. Moss is a true sophomore, still probably lacking in the physical maturity required of the position, and it's unclear whether he has the necessary explosiveness to blow up a LB in space.
Alex De La Torre - 6-0, 225
Our third linebacker project move finishes out the depth chart at FB. Anyone notice a trend? I have no idea how De La Torre has developed, but in high school, he was undersized and underpowered. Unless Wylie's offseason program included heavy doses of Gamma radiation, he's not ready for prime time.
Now that I've awed you all with our choices in personnel (and you may have a deeper understanding of why JUCO blocking specialist Geoff Swaim is coming here next year), and in anticipation of the standard suggestions that comes up when Longhorn fans hear the word "fullback" and begin waxing rhapsodic about Steve Worster and their desire for the wishbone's return or a two-headed running attack featuring fullback dives that won't be happening, let's talk workarounds.
Why Don't We Just Go Double Tight Or Use A H-Back?
We can and will. However, TE isn't a position of strength its own self, I don't see a TE on the roster who can be a credible lead blocker as an offset H-back in the backfield on a power lead play (Barrett Matthews is probably our best hope), and in a sense we're now featuring a position we've all agreed is a relative weakness, with (relatively) more ability at pass-catching than blocking. Although our running game is flexible, a good lead blocker inside is valued for optimization. We can't maximize with a bunch of TEs screening defenders instead of moving the LOS. When you have big running backs that like contact, a solid interior OL, and a Big 12 conference with poor DT play, the difference between a dominant running game and a good one may just rest on a fullback's ability to erase a linebacker in the 3 hole. DJ Grant ain't doing that.
Insert (Name Of Random OL or DL) Shouldz Playz Fullbackz!
A FB has to be athletic enough to change direction and not get matadored by defenders, can't get submarined, and 99.8% of big men lose their explosiveness outside of small spaces. That's why you only see them on goalline situations, where the field is compressed, and defenders are forced to meet blocks.
Joe Bergeron Could Play Fullback
He could, though we don't actually know how good he'd be at it and if his heart would be in it. We don't want to play our most physically gifted runner at FB. And we're not running the Veer or Wishbone, so he's not going to get to carry the rock. Could we do some things with split backs, featuring two halfbacks at the same time? Maybe. But it won't be a mainstay.
Let's Spread The Field
Go 3 WRs, 1 RB and force the defense into undermanning the LOS and going nickel. Make them cover the guy who would have been at FB. Looks great on a napkin, but that puts the game on our QB and WRs. If you can't throw credibly and consistently with good reads into coverage, the defense destroys your run game with simple numbers and focus, and the Longhorn turnover factory starts pushing out product on 3rd and 11.
The Fullback Problem doesn't have an easy solution and though its impacts are subtle compared to possible deficiencies on the OL or QB, we won't maximize in the running game to its potential without a credible H-back or fullback. 4th year senior Barrett Matthews and 5th year senior Ryan Roberson have a real opportunity to end their careers with gusto and earn cult fan status - at least among the football nerds who appreciate role players - if they can provide what we need to augment Harsin's offense.
I'm eager to hear your thoughts. Who steps up? And if no one does, how do we work around it?