AUSTIN -- Two months into his first season at the University of Texas, five-star recruit Malcolm Brown appeared worthy of his ranking as the top running back coming out of high school and the No. 10 recruit overall.
At a school that makes room for two Heisman Trophies won by running backs -- Earl Campbell in 1977 and Ricky Williams in 1998 -- Brown had topped their freshmen per-game rushing averages. He was on pace to set the Longhorns' record for rushing yards by a freshman.
Brown was in good company, to be sure, but it was all derailed by ... uh, turf toe.
While his injury doesn't have the same dramatic effect as, say, a compound fracture, Brown said it is debilitating.
"It's pretty bad," Brown noted Tuesday evening as Texas (7-4) prepared for Saturday's regular-season finale at Baylor (8-3). "My toe just kind of got bent back a little too far. It's pretty much just a sprain. The first couple of days, it's almost hard to walk. It's fine right now."
After breaking triple-digit yardage for the third time this season on Oct. 29 with 119 against Kansas, Brown was averaging 90.7 yards per game. He was on pace to finish the regular season with 1,089 rushing yards, which would have broken the UT frosh mark of 1,053 set by Cedric Benson in 2001. (As freshmen, Benson rushed for 87.8 yards per game, Campbell for 84.4 yards and Williams for 82.5.)
Brown was held out of the first two games in November, and the 6-foot, 213-pounder is now averaging 78.56 yards per game; after his return, he gained 33 yards against Kansas State and 39 last week against Texas A&M. He ranks third among true freshmen in the Football Bowl Subdivision, behind North Carolina's Giovani Bernard (101.83 yards per game) and Connecticut's Lyle McCombs (100.82).
While Brown ran for 110 yards in the season's third game, a UT payback win at UCLA, he said his transition from Class 5A high school ball -- for Texas state champion Cibolo Steele High -- didn't happen quickly.
"Maybe halfway through the season," Brown said. "The game's a lot faster."
He committed to Texas in August 2010, before his senior season at Cibolo Steele, near San Antonio. The Longhorns were coming off a season in which the Colt McCoy offense -- pass early and often -- took the team to the national championship game and a near upset of No. 1 Alabama. The Longhorns' top rusher that season was Tre' Newton with 552 yards. The team's average of 148 rushing yards per game was UT's lowest since 2002.
With Garrett Gilbert set to inherit the 2010 offense after his freshman season, Texas coach Mack Brown said in July '10 that he wanted to bolster UT's running game and not always have his quarterback in the shotgun. Those were encouraging words to Malcolm Brown.
Texas turned to its running game even more so early this season, when Gilbert lost the starting position and the quarterbacking situation became a who's-hot, who's-not game involving sophomore Case McCoy (Colt's younger brother) and freshman David Ash. UT put together consecutive games of 400 rushing yards for the first time since Campbell's senior year in 1977.
Brown acknowledged that the running backs have felt they must handle a greater load given the shuffling of quarterbacks.
"We all know we have a young offense, not just young quarterbacks," he said. "Everybody has had to pick it up. Case and David, they both work so hard; whichever one is in there, they're going to work hard and lead the team."
But injuries soon riddled the running corps and standout freshman receiver Jaxon Shipley. The result going into Saturday's game is a running game that is down to 21st nationally, to go along with a passing game ranked 96th. Across the line on Saturday will be a Baylor defense that ranks 102nd against the run and 114th in total yardage.
Comparative stats aside, Brown simply wants to finish the regular season on a high note.
"I had an unfortunate injury that took me out, kind of took me out of my rhythm a little bit," he said. "I'm just ready to get back out with my team and show our running game, not just me, at the beginning of the season wasn't a fluke."