Why Texas football’s Roschon Johnson is best backup RB in the country

Roschon Johnson, Texas football Mandatory Credit: Aaron E. Martinez/Austin American-Statesman- USA TODAY NETWORK
Roschon Johnson, Texas football Mandatory Credit: Aaron E. Martinez/Austin American-Statesman- USA TODAY NETWORK /

There is a true two-headed monster that Texas football has in the backfield between star junior running back Bijan Robinson and senior Roschon Johnson. These two running backs could both rank among the three or four best at the position in the Big 12.

But this duo, without a doubt, is the best one-two punch at running back in the entire country.

Texas is the only team in the FBS that has two running backs ranking in the top 25 in the country in run grade. Roschon ranks 11th in the FBS in run grade this season, at 88.1, with Bijan ranking second, at 92.0.

There are a lot of college football fans out there that expect this type of effectiveness and production out of Bijan. But it is truly extraordinary that Texas is getting this much out of the “backup” running back.

I put quotes around “backup” due to the fact that Roschon just doesn’t have the makings of someone that usually fits that role.

Roschon could easily start for 90 percent of FBS teams this season, as evidenced by his rushing grade nearly ranking in the top 10 in the country. The leadership, physicality, and versatility that he brings to the table are just added bonuses.

As if it’s not clear already, I do believe that Roschon is not only one of the best running backs (at least among the top 15 or 20) in the FBS, but he is also the top backup at the position.

Yet, it’s one thing to say that someone is the best backup running back in the FBS. It’s another thing to prove it.

So, what makes a great backup running back in college football nowadays?

The first factor that I believe makes a great running back is the ability to make the most out of limited carries. Backup running backs are often asked to lighten the load on the starter. That can take the form of taking more snaps on third downs and in short-yardage situations, where you must grind out first downs by running through the teeth of the opposing defense.

Secondly, in a day and age where playing complimentary football is so important, and offenses can be so multifaceted, having a dynamic running back that pairs well with the starter is a key factor.

For example, while Bijan is one of the most dominant rushers in the country, he has limitations in terms of his blocking ability. And in the prior two seasons, Bijan had some strides to make as a receiver. A solid backup for Bijan in this situation would be a versatile back that knows the blocking schemes asked of him and can make plays out of the backfield as a pass-catcher.

Last but not least, the third factor that makes a solid backup running back is toughness and adaptability. Part of taking on the role of a backup running back is having the reliability and adaptability to be able to be thrown into any situation and thrive. Running backs get hit a lot, and thus you never know when an injury could occur.

That level of uncertainty means that the next man up at the position must be ready to step in and take starting reps at any time.

Now, that we have our three factors that go into making up a solid backup running back, let’s compare those to what Roschon brings to the Longhorns.

The insane efficiency of Texas football RB Roschon Johnson

From a statistical perspective, it’s clear to see the value that Roschon brings to the table.

Through eight games played this season, Roschon has registered 61 carries for 367 rushing yards (6.0 yards per carry, career high), and two rushing touchdowns. He’s also got 14 catches for 128 receiving yards (9.1 yards per catch, career high), and one touchdown catch.

Roschon is continuing to make his impact felt on the ground, as he’s averaging six yards per carry for the first time in his career. And he’s actually producing at a higher level than ever before in the receiving game. Roschon is a little more than a dozen receiving yards away from topping his previous career best and is already tied for his career-high in touchdown catches.

Furthermore, we talked about making the most of every carry being part of the makeup of a good backup running back. Roschon is a really gritty and physical runner that still has the field vision and elusiveness in the open field necessary to boast successful run plays more often than not.

A good indication of the physicality that Roschon is able to run with, and how it translates to effective carries, is his number of yards after contact per carry. Roschon ranks second in the Big 12 this season, only behind West Virginia’s CJ Donaldson, in terms of yards after initial contact per carry (4.63). That’s also good for sixth-best among eligible Power Five running backs.

Roschon also ranks second among Power Five running backs this season in elusive rating, which is a combination of missed tackles forced and yards after contact aggregated with the number of touches on offense. He only ranks behind Florida State’s Trey Benson in that regard.

And the way that Roschon is able to make opposing tacklers miss is always fun to watch. You’ll often see him stiff-arming opposing defenders to the ground, juking out defenders in the open field, and even hurdling them to pick up key first downs.

Roschon can also power through opposing tacklers to pick up key third downs in short-yardage situations.

Another way to view the effectiveness of Roschon in terms of his ability to make the most of every carry, and more specifically make opposing defenders miss, is his number of missed tackles forced per carry.

Roschon ranks second in the FBS this season in terms of missed tackles forced per carry (0.55). That even ranks above Bijan.

Roschon does a lot of things well that Bijan still is working on

As a former converted quarterback, Roschon possesses a different understanding of the offensive scheme and brings a greater level of versatility to the table than most other running backs. Granted, one of the downsides to Roschon’s game this season is his issues with dropping the ball. Following the loss to the Oklahoma State Cowboys last weekend, Roschon now has two drops on the season, good for a drop percentage of 12.5. That is the highest drop percentage of his career to date.

Yet, Roschon has mostly remained a reliable target in the passing game that can pick up key yards as a receiver out in the flats. He’s utilized more often as a safety valve that can pick up yards after the catch when he gets the ball as a receiver behind the line of scrimmage than other Texas running backs such as Bijan and Keilan Robinson.

While fewer than 30 percent of Bijan’s targets in the passing game come behind the line of scrimmage, 60 percent of Roschon’s targets come in that area of the field. Yet, Roschon is able to make the most of it. He is averaging 9.4 yards per catch on targets behind the line of scrimmage, despite catching the ball at an average depth of target of -3.1 yards.

Texas is now often able to utilize Roschon in screens and as the aforementioned safety valve in the passing game while Bijan is more often running wheel routes to the outside and short routes to the flats out of the backfield. This ability to have both running backs present threats in different parts of the field in the passing game helps to open up the offensive playbook out of 21 personnel formations while maintaining the threat on the ground.

Another aspect of Roschon’s game that compliments Bijan well is his blocking ability. Roschon is adept at both run blocking and pass protection.

While Roschon grades out in the middle of the pack among Big 12 running backs in run blocking, it’s clear that this staff trusts him on those plays. Roschon has taken 37 snaps as a run blocker this season, good for fourth most among Big 12 running backs.

A big reason for that abundance of snaps as a run blocker for Roschon this season is the 21 personnel formations that Texas uses on run plays to hand the ball off to Bijan.

And while Roschon is a capable run blocker, there are still some strides he could make in regard to his ability to effectively take the right approach and effectively meet opposing defenders at the point of attack through the right gap. Roschon knows where to go as a run blocker but sometimes doesn’t take the best approach to drive the defender and open up the lane for the ball carrier.

An area that Roschon does excel is pass blocking. Roschon is actually the sixth highest-graded Power Five running back in pass blocking this season. He’s also just one of four running backs in the Power Five with a pass-blocking grade of at least 70 without allowing a single sack or QB hit this season.

It’s worth noting that Roschon has even contributed to special teams this season. Peep this hit on a kick return play against the Iowa State Cyclones a couple of weeks ago for a tackle behind the 25-yard line.

Roschon actually has three combined tackles under his belt in special teams coverage this season.

Roschon is a catalyst for Texas’ success on third down and in short-yardage situations

I wouldn’t necessarily classify Roschon as your standard third-down or goalline running back. While Texas will utilize him in different ways and in different situations on short-yardage plays, he’s too versatile to just call him a situational runner.

On the other hand, Roschon is often utilized successfully on third-down plays and on the goalline.

According to College Football Data, Roschon is utilized on 17 percent of third downs, more so than on any other down for Texas. He gives Texas another viable skill position weapon that they can get the ball to in multiple ways to pick up key first downs and convert in the red zone.

So far this season, Roschon has successfully converted (whether it be a first down or touchdown) on 17 of the 23 short-yardage situations he was called upon as a runner. That essentially means his success rate on run plays of four yards or fewer to move the chains or score a touchdown was around 74 percent.

For good measure, the average conversion rate for Big 12 running backs on short-yardage run plays this season is a little bit south of 60 percent from what we could find.

Converting at such an efficient clip in these tough short-yardage situations is one of the ways that Roschon is able to prove his toughness and reliability. Another way that Roschon is able to prove his reliability is his ability to take care of the football.

In fact, Roschon is one of just two FBS running backs since 2019 that has at least 300 carries without fumbling the ball a single time. That just goes to show the extent to which Roschon is able to effectively manage turnovers.

It’s worth mentioning that Roschon has also never fumbled the ball as a receiver, with more than 55 career catches under his belt.

That is insanely impressive to go that long without fumbling as a running back or a receiver.

All in all, it’s easy to see how many phases of the game Roschon excels in. That translates to him checking off a lot of the boxes that a team would like in terms of having a premier backup running back.

It also shows that Roschon not only has a very strong argument to make for the best running back in the country but also that he would be a solid starter for at least 90 percent of the other FBS teams in college football.

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Roschon is definitely on pace to have a lengthy NFL career in the future. He’s got a lot of the tools and versatility at the running back position that NFL scouts are looking for in this day and age.