Jimmy Burch

Texas counting on Johnathan Gray, other seniors for turnaround

Texas running back Johnathan Gray, who won three state championships and rushed for 10,889 yards at Aledo, looks forward to playing in Fort Worth on Saturday.
Texas running back Johnathan Gray, who won three state championships and rushed for 10,889 yards at Aledo, looks forward to playing in Fort Worth on Saturday. AP

Texas running back Johnathan Gray, a senior from Aledo, offered a quick checklist of the high-profile personnel changes he has witnessed at his school during his college career.

Gray has played for two head football coaches who reported to three different athletic directors (two full-timers, one interim). He’s seen five assistant coaches involved in calling the offensive plays.

“You sign up for one coach, one team, one dream,” Gray said, reflecting on his expectations after leaving Aledo as the 2011-12 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year. “But we have all these changes and, as a player, you have to be more mature about how you handle the situation. You can either fight through it or you can lay down.”

Gray, who shares the team lead in rushing touchdowns (three) heading into Saturday’s game at No. 4 TCU (11 a.m., WFAA/Ch. 8), has chosen to lead the fight for a Texas team in danger of setting lots of unwanted precedents this season. The Longhorns (1-3) already have clinched the school’s slowest start to any season since 1956, the year before legendary coach Darrell Royal was summoned to Austin.

If the .250 winning percentage continues through the end of the season, Texas’ 4-8 finish would mark the school’s worst record in 20 years of Big 12 membership. Because TCU (4-0) joins No. 5 Baylor (3-0), No. 15 Oklahoma (4-0) and No. 23 West Virginia (3-0) on the list of undefeated upcoming opponents for the Longhorns, the potential for a losing record looms large if Texas cannot turn around its season Saturday. Or soon thereafter, considering TCU enters as an 15-point favorite.

Coach Charlie Strong, who has seen his team drop its last two games because of special-teams gaffes in the final minute, said he is counting on Gray and other senior leaders to help Texas’ younger players persevere through their struggles and finish this season with a flurry.

“It’s going to depend on the vets. As long as they can keep that team together, we’re going to be fine,” Strong said during this week’s news conference in Austin, where he singled out Gray and defensive back Duke Thomas as instrumental in those efforts. “Young guys, they just want to play. It’s the older guys that we can’t let the [damaged] psyche get in their heads. Because then it will affect the younger players.”

Gray, who won three state championships and rushed for 10,889 yards during his four seasons at Aledo, made it clear that he plans to finish the fight and looks forward to a happy homecoming in Fort Worth.

“The seniors and the veterans, our mindset is to keep fighting, keep pushing,” Gray said. “Our day is going to come. This is where I think our maturity shows. The attitude is different from last year. You can tell that in the locker room.”

Texas, a 6-7 team last year, has leaned on lots of freshmen on both sides of the ball to infuse talent and energy into Strong’s second season at the helm. Strong also leans on Gray to direct the young players in the huddle with him, including redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard.

Gray points to Heard as a primary reason why Texas’ veterans remain upbeat about an impending turnaround this season. From a personal perspective, playing in Fort Worth has Gray focused on topping last week’s season-high rushing totals (11 carries, 55 yards) posted in a 30-27 loss to Oklahoma State.

“You always want to perform for your family and people in that type of game,” Gray said. “I always love it, going back home, playing against people I played against in high school, playing against some of my friends. That’s what you live for.”

But it’s no secret Gray has not lived life as large as fans expected since joining the Longhorns. The five-star signee posted his top individual rushing season as a sophomore (780 yards, 4.9 per carry), a 2013 campaign cut short by a torn Achilles that required surgery. Gray returned last season to rush for 637 yards and a career-high seven TDs but admitted his burst was not there on a full-time basis.

Gray considers himself back to full speed this season but has gotten limited opportunities to showcase his skills because Heard has emerged as the team leader in carries (55), rushing yards (295) and yards per carry (5.4) in his dual-threat role. Gray said he’s fine with the twists and turns he’s seen at Texas because everything has combined to make him a stronger person.

But he acknowledged he never thought he would be heading into the fifth game of his senior year in search of his first 10-win season at Texas and scrambling to post the first 1,000-yard rushing season of his college career.

“You think about it. You’d be crazy to not think about it,” Gray said. “But you’ve got to be mature and be able to handle it. That happens in life. Things don’t go as planned, the way you’d like it. But nothing in life is easy. So you have to persevere.”

His newest goal? To make sure younger teammates do not experience as much turnover and turmoil in their Texas careers as members of his senior class, who also overlapped a recent change of school presidents.

“Hopefully, the young guys don’t have to experience everything we have experienced,” Gray said. “And we can keep this thing rolling.”

Jimmy Burch: 817-390-7760, @Jimmy_Burch

Burch’s picks

No. 4 TCU 38, Texas 21 (11 a.m. Saturday, WFAA/Ch. 8): Horned Frogs handle the improving Longhorns, who have yet to show a pulse in a game played away from Austin.

No. 5 Baylor 56, Texas Tech 45 (2:30 p.m. Saturday, WFAA/Ch. 8): Bears survive another shootout against another high-scoring offense.

No. 20 Oklahoma State 31, Kansas State 17 (3 p.m. Saturday, FS1): Cowboys have the defensive talent to keep the K-State offense under wraps.

No. 15 Oklahoma 34, No. 23 West Virginia 31 (11 a.m. Saturday, FS1): This coin-flip proposition goes to the home team. But the Sooners will be challenged.

Iowa State 34, Kansas 20 (11 a.m. Saturday, FSSW): Jayhawks drop their 27th consecutive road game against Big 12 foes. Streak dates to 2008.

Last week: 3-2

Season: 27-5

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