Chris Ogbonnaya entered the season as Texas' third-down back. But Ogbonnaya set single-game career highs for carries (nine) and yards (71) in Texas' 38-14 romp Saturday. His 51-yarder in the third quarter was the Horns' longest run from scrimmage this season while his 111 receiving yards in the first half are the most in program history by a Texas RB. Ogbonnaya's 65-yard TD reception on Texas' opening drive was also a career-best. He was the first Longhorn RB to record a run and a reception of 50+ yards since Cedric Benson turned the trick his freshman season (2001).
"It means a lot and I want to do a good job of setting the example," Ogbonnaya said Monday. "We (RBs) don't believe in any 'starting' titles. We believe we complement one another and continue to do what we do best: stay focused and make sure we're carrying out our assignments and, ultimately, executing."
This much is true: Ogbonnaya has a leg-up on Texas' committee of backs when it comes to pass-protection and pass-catching. He may also be Texas' best chance to relieve QB Colt McCoy of some of the rushing obligations. McCoy enters the Red River Rivalry as the Horns' leading rusher (317 yards on 45 carries).
RB Fozzy Whittaker is the closest Texas comes to possessing a break-away threat, but the RS-freshman has missed four-of-five games with a knee injury. Sophomore Vondrell McGee is generously listed at 5-10 and does not have the size to consistently move piles. RS-freshman Cody Johnson is listed at 5-11, 255 pounds and can handle the blue-collar totes between the tackles. However, Johnson is still targeting a weight of 235 and, so far, has not been a go-the-distance threat.
Ogbonnaya shed nearly 20 pounds since last season after improving his diet and adding cardiovascular workouts to his regimen. He concedes that he would not have been able to dash for 50+ yards last season.
"I was heavier and more focused on catching the ball and blocking," Ogbonnaya told Inside Texas. "I would carry it every now and then. I let my weight get away last season, and it wasn't because I wasn't working hard. I could have done a better job of being a better player and a better leader, and I wanted to work on that going into this year. If I didn't work like that, then the rest of the guys wouldn't have."
Ogbonnaya is the third Longhorn RB to start a ballgame this season. He logged his first collegiate start at UTEP, but his number was mainly dialed for max-protection against the blitz-happy Miners. His single carry that evening netted one yard.
"I take a lot of pride in playing this game and I want to win," Ogbonnaya concluded. "That means more to me than numbers."
Coaches insist they are still looking for a 'featured' back as well as more consistency in the running game. It's balanced by the fact that Texas ranks sixth-nationally in scoring offense (47.2 ppg) and No. 12 overall in total offense (471.8 ypg).
"We're No. 26 nationally in rushing offense and, to be honest, I'm not happy with it," offensive coordinator Greg Davis said Monday. "We knew that, without Jamaal (Charles), some homerun balls will not show up. We've had some opportunities for explosive plays from the the backs that we haven't got."
Yet, the offense's "biggest disappointment" has been its production on third-and-short, Davis said. A 45 percent conversion rate is considered "championship level," Davis continued, noting that Texas has actually moved the chains 52 percent of the time (31-of-60) on third down. It's just that Davis expects the offense to convert 75 percent of the time when fewer than two yards are needed to sustain the drive.
"We're not doing that," said Davis, who estimated that Texas is converting 63 percent of its third-and-short situations. "We've got to evaluate what we're doing in those situations, everything from play-calling to personnel groupings. We're doing a great job in the Red Zone, and there are a lot of things that we're very pleased with."
For now, Ogbonnaya may be the most 'pleasing' aspect of a rushing offense that needed a shot in the arm. But can Ogbonnaya withstand all the shots, hits and pounding of 20+ carries per outing?
"I don't know," Ogbonnaya admitted. "If that's what the coaches want, then I would try my best to do that. I just want to make plays when I have the opportunity to and continue to win."