Longhorns lose Johnathan Gray at a time they needed him most

Christian Corona

Like Joe Bergeron last season, Malcolm Brown has been the thunder to Johnathan Gray’s lightning. 

But with Gray sidelined for the rest of the year with a ruptured Achilles tendon, Brown and Bergeron are the top two Texas tailbacks. And, as nature tells us, there is no thunder without lightning. 

Texas’ offense is at its best when it has a reliable running game to set up its passing attack. Run the ball, run it some more and then take a shot downfield. 

Without Gray, it becomes much more difficult to execute that gameplan effectively. Brown had become the Longhorns’ short-yardage running back this year, a role that Bergeron thrived in last season when he ran for 15 touchdowns. 

“It’s obviously a big impact just because he’s been running really well for us, doing great things,” junior center Dominic Espinosa said. “But I think we have amazing backs back there with Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. You can’t deny that they’re going to step in and do a great job.”

Case McCoy has passed for eight touchdowns this year, averaging 35 yards on those scoring strikes. Three of them came last weekend against West Virginia, including a 49-yard bomb down the sideline to Mike Davis. The Mountaineers led by 10 points before that third-quarter touchdown, their biggest lead of the game. 

But Texas erased that deficit and went on to pick up its first overtime win in program history. McCoy was praised for his three touchdowns, tying a career high, but that’s not possible without the threat of a dynamic running game causing West Virginia to stack the box, allowing McCoy taking well-timed and well-thrown shots downfield. 

Is that threat still there without Gray?

Yes, but not nearly as much. Gray is the one that could bounce it outside with Brown and Bergeron getting yards between the tackles.McCoy has an unquantifiable moxie that makes it easy for his teammates to rally around him and gives him the ability to come through when it matters most. But he needs a great supporting cast to be productive – a brick wall for an offensive line, a dynamic group of tailbacks and a stingy defense. 

Losing Chris Whaley for the rest of the season deals a big blow to that defense. But the rest of the defensive linemen’s performance doesn’t depend on Whaley like the rest of the running backs’ performance depended on Gray. 

Jackson Jeffcoat and Cedric Reed will still be the best 1-2 pass rush punch in the Big 12, possibly the country. Desmond Jackson, who notched two sacks and a key forced fumble after replacing Whaley last weekend, should have no problem taking over for the converted running back, especially since he made 11 starts last year. 

Whaley’s absence also doesn’t shift as much as responsibility as Gray’s absence does. Now, more of the offensive onus falls on McCoy, which is not necessarily a good thing. Going into halftime against West Virginia, McCoy had one touchdown pass and five interceptions over the last 11 quarters. 

That’s someone you want to set the offense up for, not someone you want actually setting up the offense. 

And it’s a lot harder to do that with Gray walking around with crutches and a boot.