For Johnathan Gray, there's no looking back

AUSTIN, Texas -- The play is called 27 Stretch. Texas lines up in a pistol formation with Johnathan Gray, its budding true freshman star, in the backfield.

Trey Hopkins pulls to his left on the snap. He and Donald Hawkins seal off the edge. Jaxon Shipley and Greg Daniels each take on a block downfield. When everything works right, as it did in the second quarter Saturday against West Virginia, the rest is up to Gray.

These are the kind of plays Gray built his five-star reputation on at Aledo High. You don’t get to 205 career touchdowns without making a few guys miss.

Back then, though, that was easy. It’s not supposed to be this easy in the Big 12.

Gray dashes upfield with supreme efficiency. He splits his receivers’ blocks without slowing. One man to beat, a deep safety. He cuts right, then left. The safety closes in, but a devastating cut right has his defender diving and flailing for Gray’s socks.

Nothing but an empty end zone in front of him. Welcome to the big leagues, Johnathan Gray.

“I just took it and ran with it,” he said, “and I didn’t see the guy behind me.”

Welcome to the big leagues, indeed. West Virginia’s Darwin Cook caught him from behind at the 10. Gray dragged him but went down at the 1. Then Joe Bergeron replaced him and punched in the touchdown.

Gray laughs about that now. He wants that touchdown. But through the first two conference games of his young career, he knows he can’t complain much.

Since Malcolm Brown suffered a sprained ankle early in the Oklahoma State game, Gray hasn’t once looked back. He’s averaging 5.9 yards per carry in Big 12 play and has rushed for 205 yards in the past three games.

“He’s a guy that prepares himself to go out there and play the right way,” said Texas co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. “He is just going to get stronger and better as the year goes on.”

Bergeron might be the short-yardage workhorse that Texas’ offense hangs its hat on, but Gray has emerged as its exciting young stallion.

“Every week he’s getting better,” Bergeron said. “I can see it in his eyes. He has no fear. You need that in a young guy like him.”

The 49-yard runs aren’t what have won over his coaches and teammates. Gray’s approach to the game is atypical for a true freshman. Then again, most knew he wasn’t going to be a typical freshman.

The veteran of Texas’ running backs room, senior Jeremy Hills, can understand why Gray’s rookie-year transition has been a rapid one. Two traits immediately come to Hills’ mind: He’s humble and he listens.

“He has a professional approach that most 18-year-old kids don’t come in here with,” Hills said. “You can tell he’s polished. The skill set is obviously there, but if you’re coming to Texas we expect you to have a skill set. I guess it’s his mentality – he’s not letting that water rise above him.”

When Gray studies the playbook, he asks questions. When he practices, he makes mistakes but doesn't repeat them. And when Brown went down, he didn’t blink.

“Next guy up,” Hills said. “That’s coach [Major] Applewhite’s thing. Next guy up. When they call your number, be prepared.”

His workload has grown steadily, from 5 carries in the opener to 7, then 9, 12 and 14 against WVU. The trust Texas coaches had in him grew much faster. By the middle of Oklahoma State week, Applewhite was convinced. Gray had earned the right to get more totes.

He has passed every test so far. There’s none bigger than the one that comes next in the Red River Rivalry. Gray doesn’t get wide-eyed when asked about the Oklahoma game.

“Where I go from here, personally and as a player, is just get better,” he said. “I have to get to the end zone and make some bigger plays than what I made tonight. I have to go back to practice, watch film, see what I did wrong and progress and get better.”

There is one thing that gnaws at Gray, though. He wants that first college touchdown.

Bergeron has given him fair warning. If you come up short, he’ll say, I’m coming in to finish the job. The freshman can’t do everything -- not yet, at least.

“I’m OK with scoring every now and then,” Gray said. “But every time I hit that 1-yard line, I’m like, ‘Ah, here you go, you get it.’ At the end of the day, we’re scoring and we’re getting touchdowns and we’re all happy.”

But Gray doesn’t make the same mistake twice. Next time, there’s no looking back.