Texas tailback finally has spotlight alone
Posted August 27th, 2015
In early August, Johnathan Gray offered a welcome diagnosis. “I feel great,” the Texas senior running back said.
He repeated it for emphasis.
“I feel great,” Gray said. “My body feels better than ever, and I just want to go out and help my teammates any way possible.”
After years of sharing the stage with other running backs, Gray now has the spotlight all to himself. One of the most prolific runners in Texas high school history has a chance to finish as one of the top running backs in Longhorns history, too.
There’s just one problem. “J-Gray,” as he’s known, simply can’t stay healthy.
Gray gets dinged up the way you’d expect any running back would with 455 career carries. A torn Achilles suffered in 2013, an injury far more serious than anything before, slowed him down last season, too.
Gray felt so good about his body this summer, he went to the coaches and asked to be on the punt coverage team.
But then the speedster from Aledo tweaked an ankle in practice this month. And he had “an issue” with his elbow. Coach Charlie Strong said neither was serious. “Just nagging injuries,” he said.
They were serious enough to hold Gray out of two scrimmages this month, allowing sophomore D’Onta Foreman and freshman Chris Warren to show what they can do.
So what’s realistic this season for Gray, a preseason Doak Walker Award candidate? He’s arguably the Horns’ only true star. Even Strong said, “We have backups, but we’d like to see J-Gray go out and just have a big year.”
Two years ago, Gray said his goal was to pile up 1,500 combined rushing and receiving yards as a sophomore. That didn’t happen. Last season, teammate Malcolm Brown boasted about his 1,000-yard dreams. That didn’t happen, either, and Brown was crushed.
No use in setting any statistical benchmarks, or at least making them public, anyway.
“What’s realistic for me personally is to come out here, help my team, be a well-rounded player, be productive, producing and helping lead this team to victory,” Gray said shortly after training camp started. He hasn’t been made available to reporters since early August to give any updates.
UT fans didn’t know what to think when Gray went to the locker room at West Virginia in 2013. He came back on crutches and wearing a boot. Torn Achilles. Shame of it was Gray was on pace for a 1,000-yard season until the injury.
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Gray swore he was fully recovered last August. But he couldn’t pass the eye test when the season began, averaging just 55.5 yards in the first four games.
“He didn’t get real comfortable with it until somewhere midseason or at the tail end of the season,” running backs coach Tommie Robinson said before training camp started. “That’s when he really played the game and not thought about what’s going on with his Achilles.”
Go back and look at the clips from the second half of last season. Gray made a Texas Tech linebacker look silly at the 10-yard line en route to a 17-yard score. He broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage, made a defender miss in the open field and scored from 39 yards out against West Virginia.
Gray’s UT career
Johnathan Gray's UT career
Gray had six carries for 9 yards against Arkansas in the Texas Bowl. But in fairness, nobody played well that dreadful night to cap a 6-7 season.
“I think all that’s behind him now,” Robinson said, again before Gray started practicing this month. “Now, he can go out and be the natural runner that he is. I think you’ll see a different Johnathan Gray.”
Gray has rushed for 2,118 yards in the past three seasons. That’s good enough for 15th in the Texas record books. Let’s say he gets more than 700 yards this season, which is about his average. That would vault Gray into the top 10, surpassing names like Eric Metcalf, Hodges Mitchell and Brown, his former teammate.
Still, told that he could be in rarefied air, Gray scoffed at the numbers.
“We’re not here to look at yardage,” he said. “We’re not here to look at how many stats we can put up. It’s how many W’s we can put up. We’re looking at doing that any way possible.”
It’s unclear how many carries Gray will get in this new spread offense, though. Generally speaking, spread teams do not abandon the run. For all the hubbub about Baylor’s and TCU’s passing attacks, both teams finished among the top three in Big 12 rushing yards per game last season.
Gray can’t, and probably doesn’t expect, to do this alone. Foreman and Warren have been turning heads and rumbling through defenders all month. “Chris looks like a man. He’s a brick house,” UT safety Dylan Haines said.
Gray came to Texas with visions of becoming one of the greats. And he might leave as one, statistically speaking. But for now, all Gray cares about is starting the season right and helping Texas get back on track.
“Yep, that’s it,” Gray said. “I’m just trying to help my teammates get to where they need to be and get to where I need to be.”
- Gray has played in 35 career games. He has started 13 of those.
- His career average is 4.7 yards per carry.
- His longest career run? A 49-yarder vs. West Virginia in 2012. He didn’t score on the play.
- Gray’s single-game highs: 29 carries (2013, Oklahoma); 141 yards (2013, Kansas State); three TDs (2014, West Virginia).
- Gray has had five 100-yard games — 141 vs. Kansas State in 2013, 123 vs. Oklahoma in 2013, 111 vs. Kansas in 2012, 106 vs. Texas Tech in 2012, and 101 vs. West Virginia in 2014.
- How do Gray’s numbers match up against those of his father — James Gray, a Texas Tech star in 1986-89 — after three seasons? Pretty well. Gray has 455 career attempts (his father had 479) for 2,118 yards (his father had 2,557 at this point) and 14 touchdowns (27). James Gray, in his final season, rushed for 1,509 yards and scored 18 TDs.
Gray is No. 15 on UT’s all-time rushing list. He’s 547 yards away from cracking the Top 10 and is 1,114 yards from overtaking Chris Gilbert, who rushed for 3,231 yards in the late 1960s, for No. 5 on the list.
Long time since 1,000-yard rusherThe last Texas running back to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season was Jamaal Charles, who had 1,619 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2007. A look at Texas’ leading tailbacks since then (yards/TDs):