Texas fans don't have to think hard to remember Oklahoma running no-huddle and DeMarco Murray finding creases against defenses that didn't get set in time. And with the Longhorns moving to more of an up-tempo attack, the hope is that you'll see Johnathan Gray doing his burnt-orange version of that same kind of damage.
"It benefits us well," Gray said of the new attack. "The guys subbing in and out on the defense gives us a chance to find open lanes. We can see the schemes and the holes for us to run in."
Gray rushed for 701 yards and three touchdowns in 2012, despite not taking a regular role in the offense until Malcolm Brown went down against Oklahoma State. He rushed 21 times for 89 yards in the first three games, an average of just under 30 yards per game. In the 10 games after, including Oklahoma State, Gray rushed for 612 yards, more than doubling his per-game average, while also catching 11 passes for 151 yards and another touchdown.
But this spring, it was apparent that he took yet another step forward. The old saying goes that most players make their biggest jumps between their freshman and sophomore years. That thought line makes sense — players figure out in their first years (for the most part) that what they did in high school just isn't sustainable anymore, and they learn to adapt.
And Gray looked significantly better in the three open practices this spring than he did all last year. His body has been transformed from where it was a year ago. And he showcased quite a bit more of the explosiveness that made him the nation's top running back coming out of high school. Could Gray have gotten faster? Sure. But it's more likely that the game was simply moving slower, and that he had better learned to take full advantage of his already considerable gifts.
He showed off those skills with a six-carry, 45-yard performance in the spring game, while also rushing for a two-yard touchdown.
In a way, Gray's arc has nearly paralleled that of Brown's. Arguably the top running back in the country coming out of Cibolo Steele, Brown rushed for 742 yards and five touchdowns while fighting injuries, rather than a timeshare of carries. And, like Gray, a healthy Brown appeared much better in the spring, with a more carved up body and a more decisive running style.
So, with that in mind, in what area does Brown think that a running back typically improves the most from year one to year two?
"The biggest thing to pick up on is pass protection," Brown said. "The running backs come in and know how to run the ball. All the running backs here are here because they can run. If you can pick up on the all the other little things like timing, pass protection and other details, then everything will be fine."
Will Gray make those adjustments? The early reviews say yes, which is incredibly important in making sure that he's on the field in passing situations. Gray catches the ball well, and with Texas's up-tempo offense, his ability to stay on the field in a variety of situations will only help Texas's offense stay more dynamic.
And Brown himself thinks that Gray is up to the challenge.
"Johnathan has done a great job," Brown said. "Every day he is working hard. I always tell people if they ask about Johnathan, a lot of people say watch the older guys that work hard to see what to do. But if you watch Johnathan, you'll learn what to do. He's that guy that came in and just beat everybody at everything."