Losing Brooks opens the door for freshman Baxter as No. 1 running back for No. 7 Texas

Texas running back CJ Baxter (4) tries to side step BYU safety Raider Damuni (33) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Austin, Texas, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — It could be easy to forget that Texas' Jonathon Brooks, one of the nation's top rushers, was not the Longhorns' No. 1 tailback when the season began.

Back in early September, it was freshman C.J. Baxter. And with Brooks now sidelined for the season with a torn knee ligament that requires surgery, Baxter will step in again for the home stretch of the Big 12 season.

The No. 7 Longhorns (9-1, 6-1, No. 7 CFP) play at Iowa State (6-4, 5-2) on Saturday night as they chase Texas' first Big 12 title since 2009 in their last season in the league.

Big things were expected of Baxter when he arrived on campus from Florida in January as one of the top recruits in the country. He quickly emerged as the No. 1 tailback to replace last season's All-American Bijan Robinson. Brooks, a third-year sophomore, was a close No. 2.

Baxter started the first two games against Rice and Alabama but was limited by rib and foot injuries. He sat out the third game against Wyoming. Brooks, who was splitting time with Baxter, took over the starter's role and ripped off a run of four consecutive 100-yard games.

Brooks' 1,139 yards rushing ranked sixth nationally and his 11 total touchdowns are a team high. Some analysts have projected him as one of top tailbacks in the 2024 NFL draft.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian praised Baxter as a mature freshman who stayed engaged and steadily improved, even when he was not playing like he likely had expected when the season began.

“Since he’s gotten here his work ethic has been tremendous. Top 2 to 3%,” on the team, Sarkisian said.

Baxter has shown flashes of why he emerged as the starter over the summer. At 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds, he has the strength to run between the tackles and a burst of speed in the open field. His 390 yards rushing rank second on the team and he had a 54-yard touchdown run in a 33-30 win over Kansas State.

“He gets better every week, getting into the flow of the game,” Texas wide receiver Xavier Worthy said. “With JB out, he'll have more of a workload ... You'll see the full range.”

Baxter's biggest play so far may be one that did not show up on the stat sheet.

With Texas facing third-and-12 late in the fourth quarter against TCU last week and Brooks injured, Baxter picked off a blitzing safety with a block that allowed quarterback Quinn Ewers the time to find Adonai Mitchell for the game-clinching completion.

“Pass protection is probably the biggest thing” for freshmen to learn, Sarkisian said. “We’re seeing the growth in him overall as a player.”

Sarkisian noted that Baxter slides into the starting role fully healthy again after his dings earlier this season. Behind him are veterans Jaydon Blue, Keilan Robinson and Savion Red. Red has taken on a bigger role of late by taking snaps in the wildcat formation.

“(Baxter) is really 100% healthy again," Sarkisian said. "I’d feel really uncomfortable if this was a month ago.”

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football