Johnathan Gray Will Walk In Father's Footsteps On Saturday

John Rieger-US PRESSWIRE

Years ago, a talented running back with the last name of Gray racked up yardage and touchdowns on the Llano Estacado. On Saturday, his son hopes to do the same in an opposing jersey.

Some time in the early afternoon on Saturday, the starting Texas running back will walk onto the field at Jones AT&T Stadium for warm ups under what is expected to be a partly cloudy sky, with the temperature a moderate 70 or so degrees.

For him, it will be the first time that he's walked onto the field in Lubbock for a gameday, but he won't be the first of his name to do so.

Back in 1986, his father made his own debut in what was then known as Clifford B. and Audrey Jones Stadium.

It looks different now, with field turf instead of AstroTurf, with seating for roughly 15,000 more fans than it did in the mid-80s. There are new press boxes, new stands, new facades.

Yet, the name on the back on the jersey remains the same.

Just in different colors.

It will likely be an emotional moment for Texas freshman running back Johnathan Gray, freshly named the starter and coming off of his first 100-yard rushing performance in his young career.

After all, his father, James Gray, was no ordinary running back in scarlet and black -- he's still the school's leader in rushing touchdowns (52) and ranks second in rushing yards (4,006) and points scored (312). A second-team All American in 1989, Gray set what was then the bowl record when he ran for 280 yards against Duke that year in the All-American Bowl.

The reception won't be what it was for his father when he walked off the field there for the last time as a player following a victory over TCU in November of '89. The younger Gray is a back who got away, a prospect who never even had the Red Raiders in his top three during the recruiting process.

There will probably be jeers, insults, perhaps even a few tortillas sent in the direction of the former Aledo star.

Like most things, it will probably slide off the back of Gray, a kid matured beyond his years in the fishbowl that is recruiting these days, with the 24/7 coverage and message boards around college football always on the edge of meltdown or ecstasy, hanging on and parsing every word.

Sure, father helped take pressure off son, handling most of the interview requests and generally shielding Johnathan as much as possible, but that didn't make it easy.

It wasn't like this back when James was recruited by the Red Raiders. Despite a productive career at Fort Worth Trimble High, where he shared carries with another 1,000-yard rusher and future teammate at Texas Tech, the elder Gray was offered by only Tech and UT-Arlington, which didn't even compete in football past the 1985 season.

At a similar age, James says that his son is a better back -- "hands down." Johnathan is "bigger, stronger, faster," and has better vision, his father believes, though he does give himself the advantage in patience.

On Monday, Johnathan Gray was asked about the differences in their games:

No, we're two different backs. My dad was more of a power back. Little bit bigger than I was in college. That's why he tells me, "You can't be me." I'm more of a speedy, quick guy. He was more of a downhill, power back.

Standing as he will in his father's considerable shadow on the field where James once starred, the Texas version says that he won't feel that presence, at least in a negative way:

He told me, "Hey, you're not me. You can't be me. You have to be your own man. Do what you want to do. Be the best at what you want to do." I'm taking that into accountability, just learning from him, trying to be better than him. That's what he wants me to be. I'm going to be better than him and continue on the road.

Will he be feeling any pressure from his new starting role?

No pressure. You play the game of football. You love the game of football, this is what you do. You have to be ready when coach calls on you. That's how we feel in the running back's room.

If ever Gray did feel pressure on the football field, it was probably a long time ago. Many, many yards and touchdowns ago. State championships ago.

During his recruitment, he understood that he might not get this opportunity to start early:

He understands now that it takes more than one running back to be successful. He realizes it takes a whole team and you want to keep people fresh. He’s had a couple of shoulder surgeries (on the left after his sophomore year, on the right after his junior year), so he realizes how important it is to have more than one person at each position.

With the injury to Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron increasingly appearing to be a back better suited to a limited role, Gray has earned the starting job in a matter of weeks, some time before he was expected to ascend into that position.

Funny how someone with so many state and national high school records had relatively controlled expectations entering the season, even at a position that normally translate easily to the college game. Or at least more easily than most other positions on the field.

On Monday, Gray was asked if he grew up with a dislike of Texas because both of his parents went to Texas Tech:

I didn't grow up disliking Texas. My parents went to Tech. My mom sent me a picture of stuff they used to dress me in. It was just fun. I went to some Tech games. I'm here at Texas now. I'm playing for Texas.

Indeed.

If the younger Gray has felt little impact from his father's allegiances, the father is still struggling some with his son's allegiances.

James Gray recounted the scene at his son's commitment ceremony:

We had some fun with it. They were trying to get me to do the ‘Hook ’em Horns.’ I told them, ‘No, I can’t do that just yet. He would have to score his first touchdown or play for a national championship before I can do that.’

Johnathan Gray has already scored his first touchdown, so he's fulfilled one of those requirements, but it's not clear that his father will be wearing burnt orange in the stands from which scarlet-and-black clad Raider fans used to watch him run.

Maybe he'll save that for next season, when Tech heads to Austin and he won't have to go turncoat in front of fellow alums and fans.

Either way, there's a talented Gray once again heading to Lubbock, this time as the enemy, as he seeks to continue emerging from the shadow cast by his talented father.

Suffice it to say he's gotten a good head start on that already.

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