In high school, Johnathan Gray rushed for a national-record 205 touchdowns, but through five games in college he has just as many as all of his offensive linemen put
together — none.
This isn’t exactly his fault, though. Gray has run well during his freshman campaign and has shown the poise and patience of an upperclassman. Still, none of those attributes have helped him reach the end zone.
Last Saturday against West Virginia, he had his best opportunity to score yet. The offensive line created a large hole in the middle of the field and after one cut, Gray was gone. Well, almost. He ran 49 yards before getting caught from behind on the 1-yard line, falling just inches short of his goal.
Most backs would get the opportunity to punch it in from there, but not Gray. The Texas backfield features a 6-foot-1-inch, 230-pound bowling ball in Joe Bergeron, who will “vulture” any goal-line carries from the other Texas rushers.
It’s a system that’s become a bit of a running joke between Gray and Bergeron.
“Yeah, I’m okay with scoring now and then,” Gray chuckled. “[Bergeron] told me, ‘If you fall on the one, my package is coming in,’ and every time I hit that 1-yard line I’m like, ‘Ah, here we go, you get it.’”
But other than his unfortunate lack of scores, Gray has been everything that he was billed as when he entered Texas as the consensus No. 1 running back in the nation.
He’s been an explosive threat out of the backfield, made impressively quick cuts and has even pounded the ball through the middle with success. Those talents have quickly earned him playing time from the coaching staff. In each game of the season his carry total has increased as had his yards gained. Gray has rushed for 244 yards on 47 carries through five contests.
The majority of those carries have come out of the team’s specialty package, the Wild formation, in which Gray lines up the backfield and takes the direct snap. It’s a formation where his rare combination of speed and power make him deadly, and it’s a set he’s directed with the poise of an upperclassman.
“He’s handling the Wild formation like a fifth-year senior,” head coach Mack Brown said. “He’s handling it like Fozzy [Whittaker] did. 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.”
Brown may not have known it, but when Gray strolled onto the 40 Acres a few short months ago, the Longhorns were not only the recipients of an unbelievable football talent but they had also gained a heady individual in an 18-year-old’s body.
“Johnathan, he listens,” running back Jeremy Hills said. “He’s really mature for his age. He’s really good at taking what he learns in the film room out on the practice field and developing it. He’s not hard-headed like myself or other guys really early on, so he can go out there and play like an older guy.”
His quick maturation is evident when Gray discusses pass blocking, a skill that is often difficult for young backs to master because they just don’t do much blocking in high school. It’s a part of the game that’s key to any running back’s development, because without it coaches can’t lean on them in third-down situations.
“It’s something I have to get better at,” Gray said. “I work on it day in and day out. I just have to progress and be able to be that third-down back, too.”
With Gray’s drive you can expect him to make the improvement quickly. But for now Gray is sitting in a deep backfield that features the top fullback and halfback prospect in the class of 2010 — Bergeron and sophomore Malcolm Brown — and Hills, an experienced back who has excelled in his third-down role.
There aren’t a ton of carries to go around with that stacked of a running back room, but Gray has impressed the coaching staff with his poise and patience.
“He’s not one to sit back there and complain or pout,” co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said. “He understands the situation that we’re in, and he also understands that the backfield is crowded. He doesn’t worry about the things he can’t control.”
However, he does feel he can orchestrate a score sooner rather than later. But if his big friend Joe continues to steal his goal-line carries, he won’t be too mad. He’ll just have to work that much harder not to fall on the 1-yard line the next time.