Brendan Maloney-US PRESSWIRE
After playing 18 freshmen last season and 16 so far in 2012, the Longhorns have a roster full of young players. Here's five who are beginning to stand out.
Daje Johnson, freshman running back
It didn't take long for the Pflugerville Hendrickson running back to make his presence felt against Baylor. Co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin brought him out with the opening personnel package on the first play, gave him the ball on an off-tackle run, and Johnson did the rest with the help of three key blocks from redshirt freshman tight end MJ McFarland, junior wide receiver Mike Davis, and sophomore wide receiver Jaxon Shpiley.
Truly, though, it was the elite speed of Johnson that allowed him to find the endzone, blowing up the angles of three Baylor players, including middle linebacker Bryce Hager, the one Bear defender who had a realistic chance of making the play.
The other touches at running back weren't nearly as productive for Johnson, who is still finding his way at times as a collegiate running back, but the first play of the game was enough to illustrate why Harsin received so much criticism for failing to get Johnson a touch in the first half against the Sooners.
After all, Johnson had produced the longest pass play of the game against West Virginia when he got open in the flat and accelerated down the sideline -- he'll continue to be featured as a receiver out of the backfield and it seems like only a matter of time before he outruns a linebacker or defensive back on a wheel route from the backfield or when lined up as a wide receiver and registers another long touchdown.
More than just a jet-sweep artist, the versatility of Johnson to do multiple things well will continue to ensure that Harsin deploys him strategically to pressure defenses. There's still some polish that needs to be added here, as Johnson dropped a pass against Oklahoma and fumbled against Baylor, but when those things start to come together, opposing defenses will have major issues keeping him out of the endzone.
MJ McFarland, redshirt freshman tight end/H-back
The knock on McFarland since he got to Texas is that he's not especially adept yet as a blocker. A former high school wide receiver who missed time in the weight room because he played basketball in addition to football, he's still trying to gain to strength to execute one-on-one blocks against defensive ends, the type demanded by Harsin.
His speed and pass-catching ability, put on display late against Oklahoma when he elevated to take a ball off the helmet of a Sooner defender, are too valuable for Harsin to keep him off the field.
In recent weeks, Harsin has begun using McFarland in more situations split out as a flex tight end and against Baylor as an H-back in order to allow him more favorable blocking situations. It's all about leverage for the 6-6 McFarland and Harsin is working to put him in more favorable situations to get him opportunities.
In the passing game, he's already a threat with six catches on the season, five of them in the last three weeks, and may ultimately have as much upside as a receiver and blocker as any tight end Texas has had in the last 10 years -- he'll have more time to develop as a blocker than Jermichael Finley and he has better size and pure speed than David Thomas.
It's just a matter of when everything starts to click for him as a blocker.
Johnathan Gray, freshman running back
Now with 66 touches on the season, Gray has failed to replicate his ridiculous touchdown rate of one every five touches, but that's to be expected when making such a jump in competition level. The first touchdown of his Texas career finally came against Baylor in the second quarter to break a tie game, a run that included a sick little juke in the open field to shake a defender and find paydirt.
The coaches now trust him as a pass protector, so he can play at times on third down, and his work in the Wildcat has been solid, though he hasn't quite reached the level that Fozzy Whittaker was playing at last season.
Some odd breakdowns in his ability to see creases improved against Baylor and vision has always been a trademark for Gray, who bounced back from averaging two yards per carry against Oklahoma to drop 56 yards on eight carries on the Bears, leaving him at an even five yards per attempt on the season.
Sophomore Malcolm Brown may miss a fourth straight game if his ankle isn't fully recovered by Saturday, and Gray has, for the most part, filled in admirably, while flashing that ability that racked up all those yards and touchdowns in high school.
Josh Turner, sophomore safety
Senior safety Kenny Vaccaro may not have sounded impressed when asked about Turner's interception against and replying that plays like that shouldn't be glorified when the expectation is to make plays, but the diving grab on the errant throw from Nick Florence was one of the biggest plays for the Texas defense in another contest in which they struggled mightily to get any type of stops at all.
Turner shared what happened on his game-changing interception:
We were in thirds. I was in right third, and I was just reading the quarterback. I saw that he kind of overthrew the receiver, and I was just trying to make a play on the ball.
Seconds before, Turner had showed the speed that made him a successful high school wide receiver and valued cornerback prospect, racing across the field to make a big tackle behind the line of scrimmage when it appeared that Florence might be able to take the edge after vacating the pocket.
In the third quarter, Turner was instrumental in forcing Baylor to settle for a crucial field goal, as he and junior cornerback Carrington Byndom arrived just in time to keep the Bears from converting a 3rd and 18 into a 25-yard touchdown pass when the two defenders pushed wide receiver Lanear Sampson out of bounds after he caught the ball along the side of the Texas endzone.
Likely another year from having the functional strength to truly excel as a tackler and physical presence on the field, Turner does still provide the coverage versatility that position coach Duane Akina craves, the growing pains have been evident at times for him.
However, every week he seems to get a little bit better -- he had six tackles against Baylor, including one for a loss, a pass broken up in addition to his interception, and converted four open-field tackle opportunities with only one miss, a rate that surely has junior defensive back Adrian Phillips feeling a bit jealous this week.
Malcom Brown, true freshman defensive tackle
Don't look now, but the Brenham product may be the most productive defensive tackle Texas has right now, even with so many other experienced players in the rotation. Consider this -- Brown had six tackles against Baylor, which was twice as many as the rest of the defensive tackles combined. Junior Chris Whaley didn't register a single stop.
Brown managed the feat by using his indefatigable motor to chase down plays, with half of his tackles coming when pursuing plays. He also registered a sack, one that actually counted after having his fourth-down stop against West Virginia negated by a timeout.
Featuring the best combination of size, strength, and quickness along the line, Brown is contributing at a position where it is notoriously difficult to contribute at a young age. The fact that he's out-performing his older teammates is just a major bonus.