After rocketing up the depth chart in his premiere season as a Texas Longhorn, Johnathan Gray is set for a monster year in 2013. In his sophomore year, the young tailback has a chance to establish himself as one of the country's best.
He may not exactly be a favorite to be named an All-American after rushing for under 1,000 yards last season, but Gray certainly has the talent to burst onto the scene. He set the national record with 205 touchdowns in high school against some of the best competition Texas has to offer, and he led the Longhorns in rushing last year despite making only four starts.
Now that Gray will be in an offense that suits all of his strengths with a full offseason under his belt, this coming season will be his breakout year. For the following reasons, that breakout could very well mean becoming Texas' first offensive All-American since Colt McCoy in 2008.
The main reason that Gray is set for an All-American season is that he is perfectly suited for co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite's spread offense, which is being instituted this spring.
With superb vision and quickness, Gray is the ideal back for the spread and the space that it creates on the field. He is a decisive runner who finds his lanes quickly and then uses his 4.4 speed to separate from defenders in a hurry. He also has pretty good hands, making him an ace in the screen game as well as a lethal check-down receiver.
At 5'10" and 210 pounds, think of JGray as a slightly bigger version of former Heisman Trophy-candidate LaMichael James, who never ran for less than 1,500 yards in three years at Oregon. Their skill sets are basically identical, which is scary given Gray's work ethic and the time he has to learn the offense.
Texas' switch to the hurry-up spread offense will take Gray's career to the next level.
Gray should see a lot more holes like this when next season rolls around.
Benefiting from some new recruits as well as the change in scheme, Texas' offensive line is going to be better in 2013, which will directly impact Johnathan Gray.
It is no mystery that the Longhorn offensive front underachieved throughout 2012, especially in the running game against good defenses. The result was Gray averaged a very middling 4.5 yards per carry, far below what he is capable of producing.
Luckily for Gray and the rest of the team, the line should show some serious improvement in his sophomore season. The 'Horns recruited one of the best offensive lines in the country this year, including a massive left tackle in Desmond Harrison, a JUCO recruit who specializes in run-blocking. Texas also has some very talented backups like Kennedy Estelle and Curtis Riser, which will be essential given the pace at which this team wants to play.
All of these factors should greatly lessen the number of times Gray is hit in the backfield, and his per-carry average should shoot up in 2013 as a result.
In order to be named an All-American, a player must be able to handle the grind of an entire season. Johnathan Gray has shown that he has no issue doing just that.
Unlike his backfield mates Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, Gray has shown that he is as durable as he is talented. He carried the ball well over 1,000 times in high school without missing any time and was Texas' only back who did not deal with an injury this past season.
As players like Marcus Lattimore have shown us, talent does not matter if you cannot stay on the field. Throughout his playing career, Gray has shown the ability to handle the wear and tear of an entire season, a trait that cannot be undervalued with every-down backs.
This fourth-down conversion by Gray in the Alamo Bowl put his team in position to score the game-winning touchdown.
The best players in the country come up big in the biggest games. Throughout his career, Johnathan Gray has proven he is a gamer.
Lost in his high school national record 205 touchdowns and over 10,000 career yards is the fact that Gray's team won three state championships while he was in high school. In those championship games, Gray rushed for at least 250 yards; in the second championship game, when he was a junior, he scored eight touchdowns. And in his final season, in which he received national acclaim for his pursuit of the touchdown record, Gray produced the best season of his career despite all the attention he received from the media—and from the opposition.
So far, he is showing that same knack for the big moments that he did in high school. He had his best games in some of Texas' biggest of the year, namely when he ran for 106 yards in the win over Texas Tech. But his crowning moment came in the Alamo Bowl, when he brought his team within one score on a touchdown reception and then converted a fourth down with the game on the line.
Gray, like so many greats before him, has no fear of the big moments. That, along with his talent and the direction of the Texas program, is what will propel him to the forefront of college football in 2013.