The Texas Longhorns did not play well as a team against Kansas on Saturday, but freshman tailback Johnathan Gray had a breakout performance. On Monday, the former Aledo High School star was atop the UT depth chart at his position for the first time this season.
Gray, who rushed for 111 yards in UT's 21-17 win at Kansas, will start against Texas Tech on Saturday when the Longhorns travel to Lubbock.
"It feels great. I really didn't expect it," Gray said Monday. "I'm thankful to be a starter this week. That means a lot because the starter has to start off the game well and start off right. For me, my mindset is helping my team out to start the game."
Gray gave Texas (6-2, 3-2 Big 12) a boost on its first drive against Kansas, rushing for 31 yards on the first play to move UT into the red zone and set up a touchdown. Coach Mack Brown said he wanted to get Gray involved early against the Jayhawks after noticing a different demeanor from the rookie in pre-game warmups.
"Johnathan is playing more mature than his years," Brown said. "I thought he had such a competitive look Saturday before the ball game, that's why I wanted him in there getting the ball. He made so many hard runs and he competed so hard. He's really growing up fast and becoming an outstanding player for us."
Gray's maturation has come at just the right time for the Longhorns.
With sophomore tailback Malcolm Brown sidelined by a lingering ankle injury each of the last four games, Texas has leaned on Gray to help fill the void. Brown led UT in rushing last season and has not played since the first half against Oklahoma State on Sept. 29. Since then, Gray has become a major contributor offensively. He rushed for 87 yards against West Virginia, scored his first career touchdown against Baylor and broke the 100-yard plateau against Kansas.
"We needed some help and Johnathan has stepped up and filled his role perfectly," offensive lineman Mason Walters said. "We're doing more to let him define that role and put him in spots to be successful."
Gray has provided greater depth for Texas, which is a luxury the Longhorns did not have last season when injuries decimated the backfield over the last month of the regular season.
"Johnathan has really saved us with Malcolm out," Coach Brown said. "We had backs hurt down the stretch last year and we would be in trouble right now if Joe Bergeron was having to carry it every time."
Unfortunately for the Longhorns, the team has not progressed as quickly as Gray. Texas has been inconsistent through eight games, resembling an offensive juggernaut one week and playing poorly the next. The Longhorns managed just 21 points against the lowly Jayhawks (1-7, 0-5) and nearly lost to KU for the first time since 1938, if not for a touchdown pass by backup quarterback Case McCoy with 12 seconds to play. UT can't afford another poor offensive performance like that over the final four games of the season, not with a defense that is last in the Big 12 against the run.
"We really didn't play to our standards, but I feel like we can be better as a team," Gray said. "This week we have to play hard and be better than we were against Kansas."
By Austin Laymance/Special to the Star-Telegram