Johnathan Gray’s first three years at Texas have been full of growth in the body, mind and spirit, not to mention the valuable lesson of the surprises hiding in fate.
“Mack Brown told me after he got fired, ‘I really believe if Johnathan hadn’t gotten hurt, we’d have won the Big 12 and I’d have my job,’” said Tim Buchanan, Gray’s coach at Aledo, on his former player’s torn Achilles’ tendon in 2013, one of a number of issues that turned the running back’s college career sideways.
Now it’s Gray who is trying to steer the favors of fate his way.
To be frank, Gray’s career at Texas has fallen well short of all the lofty expectations coming out of his All-America career at Aledo High School, where he rushed for 10,889 yards and scored 205 touchdowns as a four-year starter and three-time state champion.
As blue a blue-chip recruit as there was, Gray was the top-ranked running back prospect in the nation in his Class of 2012. He had it all: talent and pedigree (his dad, James, was a star running back at Texas Tech), work ethic, unselfishness and an uncommon competitive streak.
205 Touchdowns scored by Johnathan Gray at Aledo, a national record
Most would have been surprised if there was a senior year at Texas, but a serious injury, a coaching change, struggles at offensive line and instability at quarterback sent Gray and Texas both backward.
However, in Gray’s words, life happens. And life is never yesterday. Life is now.
And now is his new opportunity. After sharing carries throughout his career at Texas, he’s finally The Guy in the backfield for Texas, which kicks off Saturday at Notre Dame.
“Coming to college I had expectations of winning national championships and setting records and winning awards,” Gray said. “Unfortunately, that took a back seat a little bit, and now for senior year I have to get better to work toward those goals.
“You can’t get down, you keep pushing forward, stay true to yourself, keep God first. ...You never shy away from what you believe. Always keep pushing and eventually it will happen for you.”
Gray, as Buchanan described it, “was fixing to blow the top off it” his sophomore year, having rushed for 780 yards in nine games before the season-ending Achilles injury against West Virginia. The injury forced him to miss the last four-plus games of that season.
You come to the University of Texas and expect to win 10 games. For us to not have that is frustrating, but you always have to stay hungry, stay happy, stay humble, keep your nose down and never give up.
Texas running back Johnathan Gray
Instead of taking a medical redshirt in 2014, Gray played, and he admitted that might not have been the best decision. Thinking he was ready physically, he wasn’t and he struggled the first half of the year in a new offense under new coach Charlie Strong with an ineffective offensive line — there’s a quip making the rounds that he played in back of a better one at Aledo — and a quarterback, Tyrone Swoopes, who wasn’t ready.
He finished with 637 rushing yards in 13 games and seven touchdowns for 6-7 Texas.
Gray said he never considered a redshirt year, “especially when guys were getting suspended or guys were getting hurt. There was no time to redshirt or even think about it.
“I always want to be out there and help my team to be productive and win games.”
Said Buchanan of a redshirt year: “That’s not Johnathan.”
Instead of two years, Gray has only this season left in his college career.
He said he finally felt he returned to full health midway through last season and enters 2015 completely healthy, with about eight or 10 pounds added to his frame. He’s up to 215 pounds, a weight, he said he feels “great” at.
Gray said while there is motivation to prove he’s the same guy, the same running back, his only real concern is his role in making Texas a better football team.
“Me personally, I’m just trying to help my teammates to get where they need to be and get where I need to be,” Gray said. “Make sure I’m well in the run game and pass game. Open up things for the wideouts and Tyrone so he doesn’t have to think as hard.
“My role is to be productive for my teammates.”
As for personal goals, he declined to say with a sheepish smile.
He also won’t say he wants to make an impression on NFL scouts, too, though certainly he does.
One said if the draft were held today, Gray would likely go undrafted and sign as a rookie free agent. But that can all change very quickly.
“Somebody doesn’t play as well as he did in high school and come to the next level and all of the sudden go away,” said Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys former vice president of player personnel, who is now an analyst for nfl.com.
“I think he’ll be a lot better. I think the line will be better and quarterback play will be better, I think the whole offense will be better.”
If Texas turns out to be better than expected, Gray will almost certainly be a — if not the — reason.
“You come to the University of Texas and expect to win 10 games” every year, Gray said. “For us to not have that is frustrating, but you always have to stay hungry, stay happy, stay humble, keep your nose down and never give up.
“Work hard, be better than the next person and keep God first.”
Finally healthy, Johnathan Gray hopes to meet the lofty expectations that followed him after an All-America career at Aledo High School. How he’s fared his first three seasons at Texas:
Texas at Notre Dame
6:30 p.m. Saturday, KXAS/Ch. 5