Texas Football: Can Running Backs Carry Longhorns Through Big 12 Play?

Taylor GasparFeatured ColumnistSeptember 24, 2013

AUSTIN, TX - SEPTEMBER 21:  Johnathan Gray #32 of the Texas Longhorns scores a touchdown against Ryan Mueller #44 and Blake Slaughter #53 of the Kansas State Wildcats at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on September 21, 2013 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The injury bug has hit the Texas Longhorns early this season, with one of the more serious situations surrounding Texas quarterback David Ash.

Ash left the Longhorns second game of the season against BYU with a concussion and subsequently sat out the third game against Ole Miss. Ash was released to play in the Longhorns Big 12 opener against Kansas State, but Ash started experiencing concussion-like symptoms after taking a couple of big hits early in the game and did not return for the second half.

With the quarterback situation up in the air, the Longhorns will need to rely on the running game to carry the offense.

The amount of talent and depth of the running back unit is impressive. Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron have the ideal combination of speed, strength and skill. But Gray has three times the number of carries of Brown and Bergeron, which could mean Gray will receive the bulk of the carries this season.

Johnathan Gray was a stud during his time at Aledo High School and holds six Texas High School football records: Career rushing carries (1,218); 100 or more rushing yard games in a season (16 in 2009 and 2011); career 100 or more rushing yard games (51); most rushing touchdowns in a season (65 in 2011); most career touchdowns (205); and career scoring (1,232). But the consensus 5-star running back has not consistently performed up to his potential at Texas. 

This season, Gray ranks 45th nationally in rushing yards per game but is tied for 21st in rushing attempts. Seventeen sophomore running backs are averaging more rushing yards per game than Gray, who was the No. 1 running back in the 2012 recruiting class according to Rivals.com. To make matters worse, Gray ranks 116th in yards per carry.

There is zero chance that hundreds of recruiting analysts from ESPN.com, Rivals.com, Scout.com, etc. over-ranked Johnathan Gray—the 2011-2012 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year. The talent is obviously there and considering his high school track record, Gray should be averaging 100 yards or more in nearly every game. So why does he only have three 100-yard games at Texas? 

A lot of the blame for Gray's underwhelming numbers falls on the Texas coaches' inability to properly utilize the offensive weapons. Last season, Gray had 149 carries compared to the 2012 rushing attempts leader Le'Veon Bell's 382 carries, so it is no surprise Gray's freshman year was nothing special. But the uncertainty at quarterback should be the push the coaches need to start building the game plan around Gray and the other running backs talent.

When Ash went down at halftime against Kansas State, Gray's carries increased and his second-half yardage nearly doubled his first-half stats. Gray kicked off Big 12 conference play with his first 100-yard game this season, earning himself the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award and College Football Performance Awards honorable mention of the week. This is the Johnathan Gray Texas fans have been waiting to see.

It's unfortunate that it took an injury to the starting quarterback for Texas to rely on Johnathan Gray's talent. Gray showed a glimpse of his potential against Kansas State, but that performance should be the first of many 100-yard games for the sophomore. At this point, Texas fans can only hope Gray continues to be given the opportunity to live up to the expectations of being the No. 1 running back recruit in his class.

With no timetable currently set for David Ash's return, the time is now for Johnathan Gray to lead the Texas offense through Big 12 play and prove he has the ability to be an impact player at the college level.


Follow Taylor on Twitter: @Taylor_Gaspar