Cody Johnson, a pile-driving touchdown scorer Texas coaches thought would be a short-yardage specialist, is now the starting tailback for the fifth-ranked Longhorns for the season-opening game at Rice.
Considered the third option behind Tre' Newton and Fozzy Whittaker when training camp started, Johnson bulled his way into the starting role by reporting in excellent shape, then dazzling coach Mack Brown in the Longhorns' commitment to a finding a tough, new running game.
"He's quick, he's powerful and our guys don't like tackling him," Brown said Monday.
Johnson, a 5-foot-11, 250-pound junior, started one game and rushed for 335 yards and 12 touchdowns last season as Texas went 13-1 and played for the BCS championship. In his only start against Baylor, he ran for 109 yards and two touchdowns. Newton was Texas' leading rusher last season with 552 yards.
Johnson, who has struggled with conditioning and injuries, had a hamstring problem in spring drills. Brown said he had figured Johnson had settled into being a short-yardage back for his career.
"We said, 'That's OK, it looks like you've decided that's what you want,," Brown said. "You're really good at it and we're going to move on. And all of a sudden, we come back and all I hear is Cody, Cody, Cody. I've heard that for two years. He's worked really hard. I'm pulling for him."
Johnson's bullish running fits Texas' revamped running game that features more straight-ahead runs instead of the misdirection plays the Longhorns used the last few seasons.
"He's come on really strong as of late," left tackle Kyle Hix said. "He's not afraid to run people over."
Brown said Johnson, Newton and Whittaker all will play against Rice.
Texas' two-deep depth chart includes 13 true freshmen from a recruiting class hailed as one of the best in the country. Freshmen Jackson Jeffcoat (end), Ashton Dorsey (tackle) and Reggie Wilson (end) all are expected to shore up depth on the defensive line. Linebacker Jordan Hicks, just the second player out of the state of Ohio to sign with Texas, is listed at No. 2 at weakside linebacker.
Brown shrugged off any concerns that so many freshmen have pushed their way into playing time.
"It shows that we've recruited really well," Brown said.
Texas also named freshman Case McCoy, younger brother to two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Colt McCoy, as the No. 2 quarterback behind Garrett Gilbert. Case McCoy moved ahead of freshman Connor Wood after a good final scrimmage last week.
"He handled the huddle and took care of the ball the best," Brown said.
If McCoy remains the top backup, Texas will plan to redshirt Wood, Brown said.