Taylor junior running back Casey Shorter.

As a sophomore last season, Casey Shorter was part of a three-headed monster at running back with fellow sophomores Brandon Campbell and Julius Loughridge.

It was a system that worked. The Mustangs produced 208.8 rushing yards per game, staying true to their offensive identity en route to another trip to the area playoffs.

But during the offseason, Campbell departed to Pearland and Loughridge took off to Mayde Creek. All of a sudden, Shorter found himself the unquestioned RB1 on the depth chart as an incoming junior.

“Those guys were good teammates and great athletes, so it’s an adjustment,” said Shorter, who rushed for a team-best 938 yards and seven touchdowns on 170 carries last season. “I was very used to a three-man rotation. So now a big thing has been working on endurance, not getting tired. More stamina. More speed. I’ve gained more muscle, but lost weight to improve speed and agility.

“It’s a big responsibility, but it’s exciting to know I can be the guy for my team and hopefully lead them towards something big.”

Coach Chad Simmons has seen the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder take his newfound responsibilities seriously.

“He’s been one of our top guys coming in to work out in the summer,” Simmons said. “He’s embraced weight-lifting, which is a big part of durability and staying healthy, and he’s really bought in. He’s doing a good job of being prepared for what’s coming.”

Shorter, who bench-presses 295 pounds, has been workmanlike under new running backs coach Paul Cochran, who has pushed his tailbacks harder, with an emphasis on getting stronger and faster.

Taylor has a unique weapon in the brute, speedy Shorter, who played basketball and football growing up. Shorter played wide receiver and safety in junior high before being moved to running back as a freshman. Coaches saw a hard runner who did not give up yards and was difficult to bring down.

“He does a number of things well,” Simmons said. “He’s got great game speed. He’s a strong, powerful kid, and he can carry his pads to where it doesn’t slow him down. He knows how to use his body. He’s got a low center of gravity and great balance, amazingly good hands. Good vision. He sees a cut and goes. He knows when to plant his foot and get downhill.”

Shorter, who has been praised by Simmons for his leadership in his work habits and confidence in his skillset, won’t be alone on an island in the backfield.

The Mustangs are hopeful that senior Dalton Burden’s first full varsity season as the starting quarterback enlivens the passing game. Seniors Marcus Grant and C.J. Tolbert provide different dynamics as ballcarriers, which will allow Simmons to use Shorter as slot receiver to take advantage of his ball skills. And then there’s the offensive line, one of the toughest in the state behind four-star national recruits Hayden Conner and Bryce Foster, and veteran stalwart Luke Sykes.

“He has gotten used to the speed of the game, and you can really tell how much of an impact player he is if you watch the games,” Foster said. “He understands where the play is supposed to go, and he trusts his O-line. I’m excited to see what he is going to do this season. His numbers in the weight room are going up and his speed numbers are going down.”

When it’s all put together, Simmons sees an offense that will be more diverse in formation, more balanced in run-pass, with the ability to spread people out of the box and “throw on our terms.”

Whether it’s a three-back rotation like last year, where Simmons stayed with whoever was running the ball well that particular game, or like a few years ago when all-time Mustang rushing leader Ean Beek was toting the rock, Shorter will have a say in things.

He’s ready for it.

“Casey has made Bryce and I look good since the sixth grade,” Conner said. “He’s the toughest runner I’ve ever blocked for. He just does his job to help the team. He’s not worried about stats, rankings or offers. He just wants to help us win.”

(This story is featured in the Katy Times' On the Grid high school football preview magazine that came out Aug. 29).