A team is only as good as its front line, a wave of experienced starters ready to supply leadership in the offseason and in the locker room, while providing the difference between winning and losing close games. But a program is only as strong as the next men up, the players who will be called upon after those front-line the year that those experienced players leave.
One-by-one, we'll take a look at each position on the Texas team, looking only at the sophomores, freshmen and committed recruits for the future. Up now, the running backs.
While quarterback was a position with a bevy of options but zero proven ones, running back appears to have the opposite problem. There are few running backs entering their sophomore seasons more proven than Aledo product Johnathan Gray, but after him, there's a chasm.
But let's start with Gray. The crown jewel of a 2012 Texas class that Scout.com ranked No. 1 in the country, and one of the top high school running backs in state of Texas history, Gray racked up an astounding 10,889 rushing yards, the third-best career total at the time, and scored a national-best 205 career touchdowns. Interestingly enough, when Gray picked Texas, he mentioned the presence of Malcolm Brown as one of the deciding factors. Gray toted the ball 1,205 times in high school and was banged up at times, leaving him looking for a timeshare situation to preserve his body a bit.
Of course the ironic part is that Brown went down with an injury in Week Three, and Gray emerged as the team's primary ball-carrier late in Week Four as he helped the team past Oklahoma State. In the 10 games including that one, Gray rushed for 612 yards while also catching 11 passes for 151 yards. He finished the season with 701 yards total, after rushing just 21 times in the first three games.
But players typically improve the most between their freshman and sophomore seasons, and the 207-pound Gray looked the part in the spring, capping off a strong string of practices by carrying six times for 45 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Gray is a perfect fit for the Longhorns' up-tempo scheme, especially given that he has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield — he caught 73 passes for 1,244 yards and 16 touchdowns in his time in high school.
Now, for the bad: Gray is the only full-time running back on roster, though Texas does have a part-timer in Daje Johnson — we'll get to him in the wide receiver story — and the Longhorns have a fullback in fellow sophomore Alex De La Torre, a converted linebacker. While he's never going to get a serious portion of the carries, De La Torre has impressed coaches with his intelligence and versatility as somebody who can both block or catch the ball. He ended the spring atop the depth chart at fullback, and could be the program's top fullback for the foreseeable future.
Catalon is somewhat undersold as a talent because he hasn't been a super-high volume guy. He's carried the ball just 305 times over the past two years — an average of 152.5 carries per season — though he's taken those carries for 2,134 yards (7.0 yards per carry) and 14 touchdowns. He's a complete back, somebody with great feet in the hole, deceptive speed and the power to run through arm tackles. While he isn't as sexy as Brown or Gray — both of whom were ranked as the No. 2 back nationally coming out, Brown in 2011 and Gray in 2012 — he could be a solid pairing for Gray when the former graduates.
Then there's Gresham, a bowling ball at 5-10 236. He ran a respectable 4.73 fully electronic 40-yard dash at the Dallas Nike camp coming off a season where Gresham rushed 87 times for 981 yards (11.3 yards per carry) and 18 touchdowns as All Saints destroyed all comers. Gresham has some versatility in that he's not a pure fullback, like De La Torre, but rather a jumbo back who can serve as a single back at times, more like a Joe Bergeron.
Grade — B
Texas has a nice front line to build off, with a budding star in Gray and an emerging fullback in De La Torre. But without any other players on roster, it's hard to give Texas an 'A'. Still, Texas isn't finished recruiting the position for 2014. Don't be surprised if the Longhorns add a third piece to this puzzle by the end of this class. And with only one established talent in the program — and no other running backs on roster slated to be around in 2015 — that could be a prime spot to sell to big-time recruits.