Can Johnathan Gray Emerge in Crowded Texas Backfield?
Johnathan Gray came to the Texas Longhorns as the top running back recruit in the class of 2012, and after a record setting career at Aledo High School had high and maybe unrealistic expectations thrust on him before even playing in a Big 12 game. Despite leading the team in rushing last year as a true freshman, Gray has a lot of room for growth and could be in line for a breakout sophomore season.
701 yards and three touchdowns aren’t exactly numbers to write home about, but Gray was eased into the offense and didn’t receive double-digit carries until the Oklahoma State win in week four. Furthermore, Gray only had one game where he had at least 20 carries. That came in the Texas Tech win when he posted his second consecutive 100-yard game of the season.
However, receiving more 20-carry games this season will be difficult. His potential breakout sophomore season will have to happen with a healthy Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron fighting for carries the rest of spring and into summer camps. Finding a way for each back to get carries is going to be a pleasant problem for offensive coordinator Major Applewhite.
Brown was the forgotten man in the Longhorns’ backfield last season after he injured his ankle after three carries in the Oklahoma State game which gave an opportunity to Gray. He was in line to be the team’s leading rusher last year as he had two-100 yard games in the first three contests last season and would have easily approached 1,000 yards.
Bergeron is the battering ram of the trio and the team’s short yardage and goal line back who finished with a team-leading 16 rushing touchdowns last season. But he can do much more than just pound it in from short distance as his 4.5 yards per carry suggests and had two-100 yard games last season as well.
You won’t hear too many coaches complain about having too many talented players on the roster, especially at running back, but that’s the “problem” that Texas has this season. Finding enough carries for all three to remain sharp and get in a rhythm will be interesting to watch in the Orange-White scrimmage to see who gets the lion’s share of carries.
David Ash is the key to this team’s chances at winning a Big 12 title, but make no mistake about it, this offense runs through the three backs and their production will lessen the pressure on Ash to make plays in the passing game. Ash can serve as the game manager and rely on short to intermediate passes along with play-action passes which plays to his strengths.
Gray has the highest upside of the three backs, but Brown is my pick to lead the team in carries and yards with Bergeron once again leading the team in touchdowns.
That breakout sophomore season can still happen, but it may not reflect that in the stat sheet. His home run ability out of the backfield could lead to game-changing runs that cripple an opposing defense.
Bottom line: Texas has a loaded backfield and provided the defense improves in their run defense and Ash develops as I believe he will, the Longhorns are going to win the Big 12 and play in a BCS game.