When Malcolm Brown went down last year with a turf toe injury, something he said had been nagging him since high school, Texas did just fine without him at first.
The Longhorns racked up 439 yards rushing in a 52-20 blowout win over Texas Tech — 191 from fellow freshman Joe Bergeron and none from Brown. But the Longhorns didn’t run for that many yards in their next three games combined. Bergeron was banged up and senior Fozzy Whittaker was lost for the year as Texas, and its running game, sputtered to the finish line.
Brown is dealing with another ailment, an ankle injury that will keep him from playing West Virginia this weekend. Going up against a team with an offense as explosive as the Mountaineers’, the Longhorns will need all the help they can get from their backfield. But, unlike last year, Texas is much better equipped to deal with an injury like Brown’s.
D.J. Monroe has scored in every game this year, taking a kickoff back for a 100-yard touchdown in a 41-36 win over Oklahoma State last Saturday. Bergeron has run for a team-high five touchdowns, including the game-winner against the Cowboys.
“Going into the game, I wasn’t sure if he was going to kick it to us or not,” Monroe said. “I was a little rusty, I ain’t going to lie. I missed a pretty big run on the first one. If he kicked it to me against, I knew they were going to do the same thing and, of course, they did the same thing. I took it to the house.”
And true freshman Johnathan Gray showed against Oklahoma State what everyone had been waiting to see from the nation’s top running back prospect. The 5-foot-11, 187-pound Aledo product ran for a team-high 68 yards — many of them out of the Wild formation that Whittaker perfected last season — on 11 carries this past weekend.
“He’s explosive, I think he’s powerful,” co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said. “If we get it blocked correctly and he’s on a safety, he can get in space and make him miss. That’s why Fozzy was very good at that. He had that same type of ability.”
Even senior Jeremy Hills has contributed. Sparingly used in years past, Hills caught three passes for 24 yards, the last two catches coming on the game-winning drive against Oklahoma State. His only other grab was a 15-yarder on 3rd-and-14 in the first quarter.
“We knew it was going to be a heavyweight fight,” Hills said. “We rose, they stepped up and went and scored. Our defense held them late — like we said we were going to do. Then it was the offense’s part to do what we said we were going to do — go score and win the game.”
This week promises to be a heavyweight fight, too. Blows in the form of touchdowns are sure to be constantly exchanged and, without Brown, last year’s Longhorns would have been knocked out easily. This year, thanks in large part to Gray, they should be able to hold their own, even against teams like West Virginia.
“I’ve gotten so used to seeing different backs roll through there that a few times, I didn’t even notice he was in the game,” junior guard Mason Walters said. “That’s just how confident we are with our guys.”
Walters wasn’t the only veteran lineman impressed with Gray.
“He doesn’t play like a freshman,” senior guard Trey Hopkins said. “Johnathan did a very good job out of that Wild formation. He came in there, which I don’t think a lot of people see coming from Johnathan Gray. I think a lot of guys just expect him to just use his speed.”
But maybe it was head coach Mack Brown that said it best.
“Thank goodness for Johnathan Gray,” he said.
Printed on Friday, October 5, 2012 as: Between the tackles: running game still impressive as tailbacks continue to grow