When fall camp began, Mack Brown didn’t know if Johnathan Gray had it in him. Could he run "Wild?"
There was no topping how the direct-snap formation looked when Fozzy Whittaker was running the show, on that Brown was certain. But there was always some indefinable trait -- some “it” factor -- that made Whittaker uncommonly perfect for the role.
Texas coaches usually referred to it as toughness, but it was a combination of a few things. Decisiveness. A quick first step. Power into the second level.
Whatever it is, Gray found that “it” factor last Saturday at Oklahoma State.
Gray ran the Wild formation six times against the Cowboys. He kept the ball three times and rushed for 20 yards, including 13 yards after contact. He gave it to D.J. Monroe on a sweep left for a 10-yard pickup and handed off to Jaxon Shipley twice -- a 2-yard run and a trick play that Shipley threw away incomplete.
Those numbers are modest, yes, but there’s one stat that can’t be overlooked: Texas picked up four first downs on its five carries out of the Wild.
Though it was his first ever game running the formation, Gray was trusted with the ball in his hands on a third-and-2 and later on a fourth-and-2 situation. That alone is a testament to the level of trust he’s already earned.
“He’s handling the Wild formation like a five-year senior,” Brown said. “He’s handling it like Fozzy did, and we didn’t know that in preseason. We just weren’t sure who the guy was or what he was. It’s him. It’s him all over the place.”
There’s another reason why the formation rediscovered its potency against Oklahoma State. Because Harsin didn’t line up David Ash as a decoy receiver in the set, he was able to put senior Luke Poehlmann in as an extra right tackle lined up next to Josh Cochran.
Poehlmann and Gray were unlikely contributors entering the night but ended up being the keys to getting a struggling rushing attack back on track.
Texas ran the ball behind six offensive linemen 10 times against OSU. Those rushes produced 45 yards on the ground, and five of them came in the fourth quarter.
After three quarters of inconsistent results, Gray and Joe Bergeron hit their stride in the final period. In the first half, Texas backs combined for 18 yards when they ran up the middle. In the fourth quarter they produced 59 yards, including five runs of 6 or more yards.
Credit the stamina of Bergeron and Gray for that, but also a UT line that wore down the Cowboys late.
If you ask guard Trey Hopkins, no stat will be able to encapsulate what Poehlmann brings to a line when he enters the game.
“He does a great job motivating guys and getting guys’ engines started,” Hopkins said. “He came on the field and produced. He got the knockdown blocks and the pancakes we needed to get our offense rolling and get our backs free on the edge.”
Offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said inserting Poehlmann into the lineup is always an easy decision. The 6-foot-7, 275-pound tackle has been cross-trained to play every position on the line and even tight end.
“There’s just a lot of things he provides offensively. There is no hesitation to put him in any situation, wherever he has to go,” Harsin said. “He’s earned that. He’s a guy who’s prepared every week, he’s a guy who just helps the whole mojo of practice. He’s a great preparer in practice and he’s also a great motivator in practice. He brings people up and he provides some energy. He’s a guy who continually will have a role each and every week.”
This week might be as important as it gets. Stopping West Virginia likely requires a ball-control offense that can run early and often. With Malcolm Brown sidelined by a sprained ankle, the true freshman and the fifth-year senior could have even bigger roles this weekend.
Texas’s offensive coaches will have to rely on their most reliable assets on Saturday. Against Oklahoma State, they found two more they can trust.