THE STARTER — Johnathan Gray
Gray was Texas's leading rusher a year ago, bursting onto the scene as a true freshman and finishing with 701 yards and three touchdowns. That was after entering the season as the Longhorns' No. 3 back — one could argue that he was technically No. 4, since Jeremy Hills was entrenched as the third-down specialist at that point in time — behind two proven returners in Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. But for the second consecutive season, Brown went down with a nagging injury, leaving Bergeron and Gray as the primary ball-carriers. And when Bergeron struggled to break loose, Gray was there to provide the lightning to Bergeron's thunder.
After a quiet start to the season, Gray came up huge when Texas needed him most, rushing six times for 53 yards in the fourth quarter of a big road win at Oklahoma State, including five times for 45 yards on a key drive that put the Longhorns back on top.
Gray then went on to have an excellent three-game stretch against Kansas, Texas Tech and Iowa State, rushing for 291 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 5.6 yards per carry. And over the course of the season, he proved himself an able receiver, hauling in passes for 151 yards, including a clutch 15-yard touchdown catch in the Alamo Bowl.
But Gray looked like almost an entirely different player in the open spring practices, showing off a more chiseled physique and displaying the kind of big-play explosiveness the Longhorns need from him. Gray had a strong freshman year, though there were times, especially early, where he seemed a bit unsure of himself. That certainly wasn't an issue this spring, and he looks to have a bright future ahead of him.
At fullback, it's a tight competition between Alex De La Torre and a slimmed down Chet Moss, with De La Torre looking like the more versatile option at this point. But Bergeron also saw some time in two-back sets along with Gray, especially when the Longhorns go two-back shotgun. And that certainly presents some intriguing options for Texas moving forward, given Bergeron's skill set.
MOVING ON UP — Gray
For much of last year, Gray was the starter with the caveat that Brown was the team's top back, when healthy. And that was an understandable position to take. Brown received two carries against New Mexico in a weird parsing-out of carries and three against Oklahoma State when he was hurt. But in his two fully healthy games where he received work, Wyoming and Ole Miss, Brown rushed for 233 yards and three touchdowns at 6.7 yards per carry. And that was coming off a freshman year where Brown topped the century mark three separate times.
But Brown is healthy now, and still doesn't appear capable of wresting the top spot back from Gray. That's because of the work Gray has put in, and he's starting to show why many people considered him the top back in the country coming out of high school. Brown will still get plenty of carries, as the Longhorns still plan to pound away at foes, even with the increased tempo offensively. But for right now, Gray is the lead dog.
KEEP AN EYE ON — Daje Johnson
OK, so Johnson is technically a receiver. But one of the mandates in the "new" Texas offense is to spend more snaps getting the ball to the Longhorns' top playmakers. And that certainly includes Johnson, who should split his touches between wideout and running back. He's dangerous at both positions, as he averaged 7.5 yards per carry and better than 15 yards per catch.
And with his versatility, he's perfect for the no-huddle scheme. Texas can bring him out as a running back to get him isolated against a linebacker, then keep him out the next play as another slot receiver. Johnson took a carry 84 yards for a touchdown last year, and had a 70-yard receiving play as well. And with Jeremy Hills gone, if Johnson can pick up the occasional block, he could earn some minutes at the third-down spot, though Gray certainly looks like a three-down back on most occasions.
Now that the Longhorns are getting more plays per game, don't be surprised if his touches get out of the 5-to-8 range and into the 10-to-15 range.
Texas likely has the deepest backfield in the Big 12, and one of the deepest groups across the country, with two players who have topped the 700-yard mark in the past two years and three who have run for over 500 yards in the past two seasons. And if you count Johnson, the Longhorns have three running backs who had a 100-yard rushing day last year and four who had at least 90 yards in a game a season ago.
Gray appears to be a legitimate front-line Big 12 starter, somebody with the talent to become Texas's first 1,000-yard running back since Jamaal Charles in 2007. The main thing standing in his way will be the talent of his own teammates. Ideally, Texas would settle on a timeshare that takes advantage of each player's talents. If healthy, Brown can be another high-level Big 12 back and gives the Longhorns another 1,000-yard talent. Bergeron isn't quite in that class, though he's certainly an effective short-yardage back and somebody who can also provide a nice change of pace. Add in Johnson's change of pace when he shifts into the backfield, and the Longhorns have a group that includes it all — two front-end do-it-all types, a power back and a big-play speedster.
If Texas can stay healthy, this is the best backfield, especially in terms of depth, that the Longhorns have had in a long time. It will be imperative to ride the hot hand and manage players' expectations, but as they say, that's a good problem to have.