The Texas Longhorns have produced offensive legends, difference-makers and impact performers—Ricky Williams, Roy Williams, Vince Young, Colt McCoy—during some of the program's golden years.
But following the McCoy era, Texas lacked those elite playmakers, as the program had to deal with facing a steady decline. Now on the rise after a short rebuild, the Longhorns boast an offense littered with special players that, with a bit of good fortune, could put together a memorable season.
With Texas having re-installed a spread offense under co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, the Longhorns may once again feature a quick-hitting offense that can also be very diverse. The offensive contributions will be a complex puzzle to fit together, as the 'Horns will return a number of playmakers this fall.
One of those crucial pieces to that puzzle is sophomore running back Johnathan Gray, whose role on offense is expected to change in a multitude of ways.
As a freshman, Gray assumed the role of the feature back while Malcolm Brown missed five games with an injury. With Joe Bergeron grinding out his own numbers as a complementary back, Gray led the 'Horns in rushing with 701 yards with three touchdowns. Gray also caught 151 yards on 11 receptions with one touchdown.
In Gray's second year, experience will automatically factor into the expectations of a strong season. But coupled with an anticipated role as an offensive leader, a deep, veteran offensive line and a quarterback who has embraced the finer points of the system, Gray has a wonderful stage set for him to launch a potential Heisman campaign, if not this season, then the next.
Gray led the 'Horns in rushing attempts with 149, 22 more carries than Bergeron, who probably did not argue too much with his 16 touchdowns. Gray should have every reason to lead the team in carries again this season, but it will be his impact as a pass-blocker and a receiver out of the backfield that will transform his game.
The Short Game
Quarterback David Ash visibly made huge strides as a passer last season, developing a nice deep ball to Mike Davis and finding a good relief valve in Jaxon Shipley in the intermediate game.
But of the 268 completions made last year between Ash and Case McCoy, 84 of those belonged to pass-catchers coming out of the backfield, showing a necessary reliance in the screen game to complement a rather short list of competent receivers out wide.
Of the three running backs atop the depth chart, Brown led the trio with 15 receptions despite appearing in just eight games. Bergeron and Gray played in all 13 games but combined to catch 20 passes between them.
The obvious here is that Brown appears to be the more reliable option in the screen game, but Gray's 13.7 yards per catch (the best by any running back not named Daje Johnson) dwarfs Brown's 7.5 average. Both will get significant looks both on the ground and through the air, but Gray should not be denied the ball in space on any play.
Young running backs are often the scapegoat for missed blocks in the backfield, especially on passing downs when the opposition will look to bring the heat.
While Gray served his fair share of looks as a third-down back, Brown and Bergeron seemed to be favored in those situations, which is where Gray will probably be expected to improve this fall.
Although it will be achingly hard for Gray to push out his two colleagues completely, if he is to take the next leap as an all-around performer and Heisman candidate, his production as a pass-blocker will have to improve, especially in an offense that could go with plenty of pass-heavy schemes.
The Bottom Line
Gray, unquestionably, has the talent, the work ethic and the attitude to develop into an All-American-caliber performer, but it will still take the refinement of the finer parts of the game before that recognition can be realized. Will this season be the year it happens?