- Max Olson, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is the third of a five-part series on Texas players with the potential to change the course of the Longhorns' 2013 season. The No. 3 player on this year's list: Sophomore running back Johnathan Gray.
AUSTIN, Texas – The goal Johnathan Gray is eyeing this fall is reasonable. Ambitious, but not unthinkable.
“Sometimes I make goals that probably no one can reach,” Gray said.
Texas’ precocious sophomore running back wants 1,500 total yards. Rushing, receiving, doesn’t matter. He can’t hit that mark without the rest of the up-tempo offense humming at a furious pace.
Only nine Longhorn running backs have surpassed the goal Gray has set, most recently Jamaal Charles in 2007. Earl Campbell did it. Cedric Benson did. Ricky Williams did it three times.
That’s the kind of company Gray wants to keep by the time his days in Austin are done.
Will Gray be an All-Big 12 back as a sophomore? That will be a challenge, considering how strong a year it is for backs in this conference.
The Big 12’s top rusher, Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle, is in the NFL now. But behind him, 11 of the league’s top 12 rushers among running backs have returned.
Gray is No. 9 on that list after gaining 701 yards in five starts as a true freshman. This year, he’ll be trusted to lead what might be the best trio of rushers in the Big 12.
How Major Applewhite will divvy up carries between Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron remains a topic of much consternation among Texas fans. It wasn’t much of an issue last year, when injuries hit both Brown and Bergeron, but they’re healthy now and looking to create some problems for opposing defenses.
The Longhorns finished No. 65 in the nation in explosive rushing (12 yards or more) last year. If all three backs get back on the field, that number could improve dramatically.
There is one stat Gray would like to approve upon in his second season: His ratio of touchdowns per rushing attempts was second-worst in the Big 12 last year. He reached the end zone three times, or once every 49.7 carries. He has a teammate to blame.
The Texas coaching staff has stuck to this edict: If you get tripped up just short of the score, Bergeron is coming in to finish the job. He racked up 16 touchdowns in that goal-line role last year and would be happy to do so again in 2013. But not if Gray has his way.
“Joe is always saying, ‘I’m the trash can man. If you get caught at the 1, I’m coming in,’” Gray said. “I’m trying to do a great job of not getting caught at the 1. There’s definitely motivation to get that [touchdown] number higher and do anything to help the team win.”
Bergeron might be the trash collector, but Gray has as blue collar a mentality as any player on this Texas team. He was the No. 2 recruit in the nation coming out of high school but loved the fact that, at Texas, he’d get to split carries with two other backs. He believed it made him better.
There’s a reason why he’s talking about total yards. Bergeron wants to be a threat in the passing game. When asked about Gray’s goal, Mack Brown said the passing component will be critical.
“I would think some of the yards now that you talk about are not just rushing yards, because they're touching it on screens, in the flat, on their little option routes underneath,” Brown said. “So you should probably start looking at running backs in this league for touches for yards, instead of just runs. “
As much as he’d like to find the end zone more this season, Gray simply aims to please. He wants to help this team any way he can. That’s the source of his 1,500-yard prediction. He figures if he can do that, the Longhorns will be in good shape.
“Johnathan, he’s a guy that will make you miss very, very quickly,” Malcolm Brown said. “Some of the stuff he does, it’ll be a little flash in practice where he’ll do something and it’s just kind of like, ‘Man, I don’t know how he made that move right there.’ That’s just him.”