Vondrell McGee was the starting tailback for Texas when the 2008 season began. Four months later, he watched the entire Fiesta Bowl from the bench.
Undaunted, the junior has come back this season a better runner, a better blocker and _ with the help of a training camp injury to Fozzy Whittaker _ has reclaimed his starting job for the No. 2 Longhorns' season opener against Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday night.
"(The Fiesta Bowl) hurt a lot," McGee said. "But it gave me motivation to step my game up. I think I've picked it up."
That said, even McGee seems unsure just how long this starting role will last.
"I'm just the person who's going to start the (first) game. That's about it. We've got a lot of backs," McGee said.
A lot of backs but until now no clear No. 1. McGee could change that.
"If Vondrell makes yards, he'll get a bunch of (carries)," coach Mack Brown said.
Texas has planned to spread the carries among McGee, Whittaker and Cody Johnson. McGee popped into the starting role with a strong training camp and a minor injury to Whittaker that limited him in practice. But Whittaker is expected to be available to play Saturday night.
"All those guys that came into this camp saying, `I want this job,'" quarterback Colt McCoy said. "He has stayed healthy, he's worked hard every day. He's getting a lot of yards."
Running back at Texas isn't the glamour role it was when Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams were rolling over defenses on their way to Heisman trophies.
McCoy is the Heisman contender now and the Longhorns' running game is more of a release valve to take defensive pressure off the passing game. Texas spread the carries around four tailbacks last season and McCoy ended up the team's leading rusher with 571 yards.
"You don't want your quarterback to be your leading rusher," McGee said. "We need to help him run the ball."
McGee's 2008 started well enough.
His season-high of 63 yards came in the season opener against Florida Atlantic. But there would be just two more starts the rest of the way as Texas rose to its first No. 1 regular season ranking since 1984.
McGee's 376 yards would be the second-highest on the team, but by midseason he was no longer getting most of the carries. He had just one against Oklahoma (which went for negative yards) and by the tiem of the Fiesta Bowl the coaching staff didn't think he was a good enough pass blocker to protect McCoy against the blitzing Ohio State Buckeyes.
So he watched as McCoy rallied Texas to a 24-21 win and didn't hit the field until the post-game party.
McGee's playing time diminished last season partly because the former high school All-American was too rigid as a runner, said offensive coordinator Greg Davis.
If a play was designed to go to a certain spot, McGee was determined to go there regardless of what the defense was doing. McGee had to train himself to be more fluid with the ball.
"He didn't trust his eyes," Davis said. "We told him 'We recruited you because you had vision.'"
McGee said it was a valuable talk.
"If you don't have vision, you can't run the ball here," McGee said.
McGee's solid training camp has impressed Texas' best defender, senior linebacker and defensive end Sergio Kindle. At 5-foot-10 and a sturdy 205 pounds, McGee can be a load even for much bigger tacklers.
"He's actually using his size to an advantage. He's running more downhill bowling ball style. He's a fast bowling ball though," Kindle said. "I think he's figured out he's an upper classman of the running backs, and he has to step into that role and be that leader of those guys."
McGee said the running backs want to take the pressure off McCoy to do everything this season.
Up at rival Oklahoma, Sam Bradford won the Heisman while the Sooners had two 1,000-yard rushers in Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray.
"I don't think Colt would have a problem with that," McGee said. "It helped Bradford. We need to do the same for Colt."