Former Aledo star finds touchdowns for Longhorns harder to come by

AUSITN -- In his fifth college game, Texas freshman tailback Johnathan Gray finally found the open field on a second-quarter carry in Saturday night's 48-45 loss to No. 5 West Virginia.

The former Aledo High School standout weaved left and right, zipped past a defender and sprinted for 49 yards. But he was hauled down at the Mountaineers' 1-yard line.

Moments later, power back Joe Bergeron plowed into the end zone, meaning Gray's quest for his first college touchdown will have to wait until Saturday's Red River Rivalry showdown in Dallas between No. 15 Texas (4-1, 1-1 Big 12) and No. 13 Oklahoma (3-1, 1-1).

That type of scoring drought never happened at Aledo, where Gray set a national high school record for career touchdowns (205).

But this is the Big 12, where bigger, faster defenders roam the field. And where a burly teammate like Bergeron (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) is going to get the brunt of the goal-line carries because he outweighs Gray (5-11, 207) by 23 pounds.

Gray understands. But last year's Gatorade National High School Player of the Year is anxious to revisit the painted part of the football field and seeks to begin doing so against the Sooners (11 a.m., Saturday, Cotton Bowl).

"I have to get into the end zone more. I have to work on that," Gray said after rushing for a career-high 87 yards on 14 carries against West Virginia. "I have to get better... and make some bigger plays than what I made [against the Mountaineers]."

If not, Bergeron, who has a team-high nine rushing touchdowns this season, will continue to finish drives when Gray and other Longhorns leave the ball on the lip of the cup after non-scoring plays.

"It's frustrating. But whoever scores, scores," Gray said of his scoreless streak. "We all celebrate as a team. If I get in, everybody is going to be happy. If he [Bergeron] gets in, everybody is going to be happy. So at the end of the day, everybody is going to be happy."

Gray, however, came to Texas to be a difference-maker, as well as a touchdown-maker. In a backfield loaded with blue-chip signees, he is steadily earning more trust each week from coaches to handle the team's single-back "Wild" formation as well as to carry more frequently in the regular offense. He has averaged 5.2 yards per carry (47 attempts, 244 yards) and has yet to be dropped for a loss this season.

Both his number of carries and his yardage totals have increased in each of his five games as a Longhorn, from his debut against Wyoming (5 carries, 9 yards) to Saturday's effort against West Virginia. It would not be surprising to see that trend continue against Oklahoma if tailback Malcolm Brown, who missed the West Virginia game with an ankle injury, does not play against the Sooners.

If Brown is back, Gray still looms as a candidate to earn double-digit carries and find the end zone for the first time in college. He sounds hungry, and Bergeron said Gray's increased comfort level with the offense is obvious to teammates.

"I can see it in his eyes. He has no fear," Bergeron said. "You need that in a young guy like him. He goes out there with confidence... and he produces. I really like that about him."

So does Bryan Harsin, the team's co-offensive coordinator and play caller. Harsin said Gray has "the right mentality" to continue earning more touches each week because of his work ethic and his decision-making skills in the one-back set.

"He is just going to get stronger and better as the year goes on," Harsin said. "Obviously, not everything is perfect. But he is a player that gets better and better every week, in my opinion."

Eventually, that has to result in a return trip to the end zone for a player who got there with unmatched regularity in high school. Once Gray cracks that barrier, look for the TD runs to flow with frequency, just as they did in Aledo. Gray is simply too talented, and too driven, to be kept out of the end zone much longer.

He's also taken a shine to his role as the primary ballhandler in Texas' "Wild" formation, which Harsin likes to use in red-zone situations that do not call for a power package.

"Getting the ball in my hands, I enjoy that. Any way I can get it," Gray said. "Those guys up front make holes so we can get first downs."

Touchdowns also are an option. Will the scoring dam finally break for Gray against OU, in his first college appearance in DFW? No one would be surprised if it does.

But Gray is not dwelling on that possibility. Only on the effort needed to increase the odds of making it happen.

"I have to go back and practice, watch film, see what I did wrong and progress," Gray said. "I need to get better."

Spoken like a guy who hopes he has been tackled for the last time on the 1-yard line after breaking into the open field.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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