Texas Football: Players Who Must Step Up in Johnathan Gray's Absence

Zach Shelton@@zachisagingerFeatured ColumnistNovember 14, 2013

Leading-rusher Johnathan Gray is out for the season with a torn Achilles.
Leading-rusher Johnathan Gray is out for the season with a torn Achilles.Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sport

Losing Johnathan Gray to a torn Achilles is a significant blow to Texas football, but not one that should prove crippling. Depth across the board is supposed to be a strong suit of this program, and this is a great time to prove it.

Texas' leading rusher went down in the third quarter of the team's thrilling 47-40 win over West Virginia. He went down without contact, and a slow-motion view of the injury painted a nasty picture of what the rest of Gray's season would hold.

This injury does not just cost Texas its best chance for a 1,000-yard rusher since 2007, it robs them of one of the Big 12's most explosive backs. His 780 yards were good for third in the conference, and his elusiveness gave the 'Horns a home-run threat out of the backfield.

With Gray's surgery a success, Texas' primary concern will be replacing his production. The Longhorns have averaged 197.3 rushing yards per game this season, but are coming off their worst rushing performance since Week 6 against Iowa State.

At home against No. 12 Oklahoma State, Texas has to get the next man up and ready to play a major role on the ground.

Malcolm Brown will take over starting duties in Gray's absence.
Malcolm Brown will take over starting duties in Gray's absence.Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Malcolm Brown

Brown, the former 5-star recruit, is the obvious candidate to inherit Gray's carries and starting role.

The powerful junior has been brilliant over the past four games as the complement to the shiftier Gray. After carrying the ball just 23 times through five games, he has toted it 88 times for 379 yards and eight touchdowns. Together, he and Gray had a tour de force performance against Oklahoma with 52 carries for 243 yards.

Now Brown will be the workhorse Texas recruited him to be. He had a season-high 28 carries without Gray in the mix, but look for Mack Brown to try to keep him under 25 per game. The backfield's new leading man has missed eight games in his career.

Daje Johnson

There is no doubt that Brown is capable of being an every-down back, but Texas still needs to replace Gray's speed out of the backfield. That's where Daje Johnson comes in.

Playing mostly out of the slot, Johnson is Texas' fastest offensive player. He has rushing, receiving and return touchdowns of greater than 70 yards in his two-year career. His 47 career carries have gone for 312 yards, good for a 6.6-yard average.

At 180 pounds, Johnson does not finish runs like Gray and cannot handle a heavy workload. Still, he has the ability to spread out the defense and give Brown more room between the tackles. 

Though the Longhorns will still miss Gray's ability to cut and go, Johnson gives them the best chance to recoup his big-play production. He should see no less than 10 carries per game in a change-of-pace role.

Texas will need Joe Bergeron to spell Brown or take over should the starter succumb to injury.
Texas will need Joe Bergeron to spell Brown or take over should the starter succumb to injury.Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sport

Joe Bergeron

Falling by the wayside after a fourth-quarter fumble against Iowa State, Gray's injury gives Joe Bergeron a chance to prove his value in Texas' backfield.

Like fellow junior Brown, Bergeron is a power back. He punched in a Big 12-leading 16 touchdowns as a sophomore and has proved to be the steal of Texas' 2011 recruiting class. For this season, he has 191 yards on his 35 carries.

It's tough to forecast where Bergeron falls because he and Brown are similar in their running styles. But Brown will need his breaks and Bergeron will have to be ready for starting duties should the worst happen.

Case McCoy/Tyrone Swoopes

Losing Gray likely translates to Case McCoy having to make more throws, while it could also mean the debut of Tyrone Swoopes in a Wildcat role. Either way, both will have to ready for increased roles.

The knock on McCoy's performance this season during Texas' six-game winning streak has been his accuracy. He has missed a lot of throws, leading to six interceptions over his past four games.

McCoy can't afford to make these mistakes if the Longhorns are struggling to move the ball on the ground. His team will need him to make plays if it is going to win the Big 12, so he must be sharper.

As for Swoopes, whether he remains a pure backup or gets some work as a specialist, he has to be ready. A McCoy injury thrusts him under center without his best running back, while any role at all means he has to be smart with the football.