Johnathan Gray emerges as threat in Wild formation


Elisabeth Dillon

Freshman Johnathan Gray (32) has wasted no time asserting his dominance in the Texas backfield.

Chris Hummer

It didn’t take long for Johnathan Gray to take command of the Texas backfield.

With the Longhorns down 33-28 in the middle of the fourth quarter in front of a hostile Oklahoma State crowd, co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin put the ball in Gray’s hands, giving him control of the “Wild” formation.

And for four straight plays in Cowboy territory Gray juked, slashed, and powered himself for 30 yards to reach the Oklahoma State one-yard line. He didn’t finish the job with a touchdown — big bruiser Joe Bergeron saw to that — but it was still a huge step for the freshman.

“He showed confidence, toughness and poise,” head coach Mack Brown said. “I thought it was the first time this year I saw him run with the confidence and patience he did in high school.”

Gray wasn’t just any back in high school, either. At Aledo, Gray rushed for 10,908 yards and a national-record 205 touchdowns, and that’s not even counting the dozens of Texas rushing and scoring lists he currently sits atop of.

When he stepped onto the 40 Acres, however, none of those stats mattered. He was just a freshman, and not only that, a freshman in the perhaps deepest backfield in America. Gray found himself situated behind Bergeron and Malcolm Brown – the top fullback and running back recruit in the 2011 class, respectively – and he was below Jeremy Hills, a senior with much more experience blocking.

Through the first four games, Gray’s workload was low. Against Wyoming he only received five carries, the next week against New Mexico, seven, and versus Ole Miss, Gray garnered nine touches.

During that time period Gray’s workload steadily increased as he wowed his teammates and coaches with his work ethic. He picked up on information regarding the system quickl, and worked hard in practice to instill what he learned into his game.

“He’s really mature for his age,” Hills said. “He’s really good at taking what he learns in the film room out on the practice field and developing it.”

But what really separates Gray from most freshmen is the maturity factor Hills mentioned. Many highly-touted freshmen will enter campus and think their natural talent will help them excel at the college level, as it did in high school where they were often the best player on the field. They don’t listen to coaches right away, and it ends up costing them production and playing time. Gray’s not like that; he’s an upperclassman in an 18-year-old’s body.

“He’s not hard-headed like myself or other guys really early on,” Hills said with a grin. “So he can go out there and play like an older guy.”

His poise is exactly the reason Harsin felt comfortable putting the ball in Gray’s hands in a key situation. He had been handling the wild formation well in practice, so well in fact that his performance reminded Brown of the player who made it famous at Texas last season.

“He’s handling the wild formation like a fifth-year senior; he’s handling it like Fozzy [Whittaker] did,” Brown said. “We didn’t know that in the preseason, we just weren’t sure who the guy was and what he was, but it’s definitely him.”

It will have to continue to be Gray too, Malcolm Brown has been ruled out this week with a high ankle sprain, so Gray is expected to absorb the majority of his carries against West Virginia.

The Mountaineers will be Texas’ toughest test thus far this season, same goes for Gray, but with his maturity expect him to take full advantage of the opportunity.

Printed on Friday, October 5, 2012 as: Gray Matters – Freshman back earns bigger role after Brown suffers ankle injury