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July 19, 2011

Great Expectations for Brown

Ten years ago on September 1 of 2001, the crowd at DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium rose to its feet in the season-opener of what would otherwise be a pretty forgettable 41-7 home win over New Mexico State.

With the lead comfortably positioned in the fourth quarter, the crowd made a collective gasp as the freshman they'd all come to see was finally unleashed in what would become one of the most discussed freshmen debuts and campaigns the city of Austin has ever known.

Cedric Benson jogged onto the field that day to a standing ovation, crowned the missing piece to the Texas running game that had been stagnant for a few years post-Ricky Williams and to a team that gave appearances of being ready to compete at the highest national levels.

With every carry in that Benson received in the fourth quarter, the buzz in the crowd grew and by the time Benson scored the final touchdown of the game on a three-yard scamper with 28 seconds left, a new Longhorn hero had been born.

Never mind that it was only 64 yards on 15 carries that night. As if predetermined by a higher power, Benson was anointed that day as the guy that would hang the moon for the Longhorns. Of course, Benson eventually won freshman all-America honors, won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back and became a top five pick in the NFL Draft

Ten years later almost to the day (the Longhorns open on September 4 against Rice), the same type of grand entrance … grand performance … grand career … is expected of another true freshman running back - five-star sensation Malcolm Brown of Cibolo Steele High School.

Just like Benson before him, the expectations for Brown this season couldn't be higher, as the Longhorn running game has floundered for three straight seasons since the departure of Jamaal Charles following the 2007 season. If everyone wants to have an honest discussion, they'd admit the running game issues go all the way back to the moment Vince Young left for the NFL.

It's been 10 years since the Longhorns have had a five-star running back prospect arrive in Austin and foam is starting to form in the mouths of UT fans who believe Brown's emergence is a key piece to turning around last year's 5-7 collapse.

But, what should the real expectations for Brown look like? Is calling anything short of 1,000 yards this season (a measly 75 per game) a disappointment anywhere close to the realm of reality?

The history of five-star running backs over the course of the last decade tells us an emphatic answer - hell no.

Over the course of the nine years, 32 different backs have been given five-star status by Rivals.com and when looking back at the results of their first-year impacts, you'll see that there is no such thing as a guarantee when it comes to big-time running backs in college football. The numbers provide a sobering analysis.

Of the 32 five-star backs since 2002, five actually redshirted as true freshmen, which leaves of 27 players from which to draw data (admittedly a small sample size). Overall, those 27 five-star backs averaged 534 yards on 101 carries and only four players crossed the 1,000 yard mark as first-year freshmen.

The four? Maurice Clarett in 2002, Adrian Peterson in 2004, Marcus Lattimore in 2010 and Michael Dyer in 2010. To put into perspective the season that Peterson had in 2004, consider that his 1,925 yards with the Sooners was nearly 700 more yards than Clarett's 1,237 yards in a national championship campaign. No other five-star back in the last decade has crossed the 1,200 mark outside of those two.

Of course, Brown was not just any old five-star running back - he was also the nation's No. 1 back, company that includes four first-round draft picks over the last decade, two other NFL players and almost certainly a future pro or two as well. So, what was the average true freshman season among the top rated backs in the country?

If we take FSU's Lorenzo Booker out of the discussion because of a redshirt season, we're left with eight backs from which we can draw information - Reggie Bush, Peterson, Jonathan Stewart, Chris Wells, Joe McKnight, Darrell Scott, Bryce Brown and Lattimore. Monster names or not, they combined to average 641 yards and six touchdowns on 130 carries. If you eliminate the statistical anomaly that was Peterson's 2004 Heisman run (339 carries for 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns), the averages drop down to 111 carries for 549 yards and 4.5 touchdowns.

No matter how you slice the numbers, history suggests that instant impacts simply cannot be taken for granted. Jonathan Stewart might have been a first-round pick in the NFL and a star at Oregon, but he cranked out only 188 yards as a true freshman and averaged less than four yards per carry. All-Americans and future first-round picks Bush and Wells couldn't crack 600 yards.

So, back to the original question. What should Texas fans expect from Brown this season? What's realistic?

Well, the odds suggest that 1,000 yards probably won't happen. But, it's going to come down to carries Only 12 of the 27 five-star backs that played as true freshmen received more than 100 carries in year one and only five received more than 150 carries. The average numbers for the backs that received more 100 carries in a season (8.33 per game), but less than 150 (12.5 attempts per game) equaled 119 carries for 624 yards.

Only Texas A&M's Christine Michael received more than 150 carries in a season and failed to cross the 1,000-yard mark.

Obviously, Brown is expected to receive a lot of snaps this season because the position absolutely is screaming for help, but it's hard to get a read for what his true role will look like. Only Fozzy Whittaker figures to truly stand in the way of Brown's spot in the line-up, which means that it's pretty easy to see him as a No. 2 on the depth chart at worst for most of the season.

In looking at the last five offensive seasons at Boise State, the primary ball carrier has averaged 208 carries per year under Bryan Harsin, while the back-up has averaged 101. Only once in four years did the primary back receive less than 200 carries and only one did the back-up receive more than 115 (in 2008 the carries split between starter and back-up was 150/111).

Considering that it's hard to imagine Whittaker coming close to 200 carries in a season (his career high in a season is 80), I think it's a safe for us to project Brown's touches to the high end of the spectrum for the primary back-up. Therefore, if we give Brown the absolute high end carries that are fair to project and we allow him to average the same yards per carry that the other 27 five-stars have averaged since 2002, I think we'll have a fairly strong prediction for Brown's numbers in 2011.

129 carries for 681 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and around five touchdowns.

Mark it, Dude.

Ranking the true freshman seasons for five-star running backs since 2002

2004 - Adrian Peterson (Oklahoma): 339 carries for 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns
2002 - Maurice Clarett (Ohio State): 222 carries for 1,237 yards and 18 touchdowns
2010 - Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina): 249 carries for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns
2010 - Michael Dyer (Auburn): 182 carries for 1,093 yards and five touchdowns
2006 - CJ Spiller (Clemson): 129 carries for 938 yards and 10 touchdowns
2009 - Christine Michael (Texas A&M): 166 carries for 844 yards and four touchdowns
2009 - Trent Richardson (Alabama): 145 carries for 751 yards and eight touchdowns
2003 - Demetris Summers (South Carolina): 124 carries for 638 yards and 3 touchdowns
2007 - Noel Devine (West Virginia): 73 carries for 627 yards and 6 touchdowns
2006 - Chris Wells (Ohio State): 104 carries for 576 yards and 7 touchdowns
2007 - Joe McKnight (USC): 94 carries for 540 yards and 3 touchdowns
2003 - Kregg Lumpkin (Georgia): 112 carries for 523 yards and 6 touchdowns.
2003 - Reggie Bush (USC): 90 carries for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns
2005 - Kevin Grady (Michigan): 121 carries for 483 yards and 5 touchdowns
2009 - Bryce Brown (Tennessee): 101 carries for 460 yards and three touchdowns
2002 - Jerious Norwood (Mississippi State): 66 carries for 394 yards
2008 - Darrell Scott (Colorado): 87 carries for 364 yards and one touchdown
2010 - Dillon Baxter (USC): 59 carries for 252 yards and one touchdown
2005 - Antone Smith (Florida State): 36 carries for 188 yards and three touchdowns
2005 - Jonathan Stewart (Oregon): 53 carries for 188 yards and 6 touchdowns
2005 - Jason Gwaltney (West Virginia): 45 carries for 186 yards and 3 touchdowns
2006 - James Aldridge (Notre Dame): 37 carries for 142 yards and zero touchdowns
2002 - Michael Johnson (Virginia): 26 carries for 133 yards and a touchdown
2005 - Marlon Lucky (Nebraska): 43 carries for 129 yards and zero touchdowns
2002 - Gerald Riggs Jr. (Tennessee): 17 carries for 49 yards
2002 - Ciatric Fason (Florida): Nine carries for 27 yards and a touchdown
2006 - Stafon Johnson (USC): Three carries for 17 yards
2002 - Lorenzo Booker (FSU): Redshirted.
2002 - Justin Vincent (LSU): Redshirted.
2007 - Marc Tyler (USC): Redshirted.
2008 - Jermie Calhoun (Oklahoma): Redshirted.
2010 - Lache Seastrunk (Oregon): Redshirted.

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