Gray going from highly touted prospect to bona fide starting tailback

Peter Sblendorio

Johnathan Gray entered his freshman season at Texas last year with enormous expectations.

Every major recruiting service dubbed him as the nation’s top running back in the 2012 recruiting class – and with good reason. Gray enjoyed a historically productive high school career at Aledo, where he scored a national-record 205 career touchdowns. 

Additionally, Gray stands second in high school football history with 1,232 points scored, and he finished his career ranked third all-time with 10,908 rushing yards. He won three consecutive Texas 4A state titles, running for 323 yards and a jaw dropping eight touchdowns in his first state championship game as a sophomore in 2010.

While it is unrealistic to expect Gray to replicate these extraordinary statistics at the college level, head coach Mack Brown believes the versatile sophomore running back is already one of the Longhorns’ most important players.

“Johnathan’s been unbelievable,” Brown said. “He blocks, he’s tough, he carries it 20 times and he’s the first one out there Sunday sprinting. Most running backs are tired and beaten up. He is a warrior. I really like Johnathan Gray and what he brings to us.”

Gray emerged as Texas’ top running back by the end of his freshman season. Despite beginning the year buried behind Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron on the depth chart, Gray finished the 2012 season with a team-leading 701 rushing yards on 149 carries while scoring three touchdowns.

Brown named Gray the Longhorns’ starter at tailback to begin the 2013 campaign. Even though he still shares backfield duties with Brown and Bergeron, Gray is elated that his hard work in the offseason coupled with his production last year allowed him to earn the opportunity to be the starter.

“It’s a wonderful feeling,” Gray said. “I definitely worked hard for it. Coach, I guess, sees that now.”

Gray continues to be effective in 2013, as he leads the Longhorns with 209 rushing yards while averaging 5.5 yards per carry and scoring a touchdown. Co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite believes Gray possesses a greater understanding of the playbook this season, and he notices the sophomore improving every time he touches the ball.

“He’s just got great vision and burst,” Applewhite said. “He’s starting to run through more tackles than in the past. Every carry you see him getting better and just more and more familiar. You see him getting more of a knack for how [each] play works.”

Despite his success, Gray realizes that the Longhorns’ offense is at the best when Brown and Bergeron are also producing from the backfield. The sophomore said that each occupies a distinct role in Applewhite’s scheme, and it is up to the stable of running backs to continue improving.

“Each of us has our own craft that we get better at,” Gray said. “I say I’ve gotten better at everything I’m supposed to do. Those guys are getting better as well. When coach puts you in, you need to go in, execute your plays, and do what’s asked of you.” 

Gray seized a leadership role in the Texas locker room at the start of the season. Senior left guard Trey Hopkins said Gray is one of the more vocal players on the Texas offense, and he believes that the Longhorns’ players maintain great respect for the running back despite his sophomore status.

“Johnathan Gray is a great player and a great person,” Hopkins said. “He’s become a great leader for the offense. He’s been a guy who has really spoken up a lot. Even though he’s not a senior, he’s led the offense vocally. He’s a great inspiration because he has so much athletic talent but off the field he’s a guy that you can really depend on.”

The Longhorns figure to depend heavily on Gray on the field as well for the remainder of the season. While Gray realizes that his high school accomplishments are in the past, a breakout season from the standout sophomore running back would be his first step towards living up to the hype.