Alamo Bowl: Five young Texas players to watch

Ronald Martinez

Even though the Longhorns closed the regular season with two losses, there are a handful of young players who made impacts this season that provide hope for the future.

1. Johnathan Gray, freshman running back

For a five-star prospect and national record-holder, expectations in the Texas fanbase were about as tame as possible when as Gray entered the problem, largely a result of two more experienced running backs on the roster and the presence of a possible third-down back in senior Jeremy Hills.

It was a surprise, then, when the regular season ended and Gray led the team in rushing attempts, yards, and, among the three primary backs, the highest yards per carry.

The finish to the season wasn't exactly picture-perfect, as TCU and Kansas State both had success slowing down Gray and the Texas running back, but those issues were more about the performance of the offensive line than Gray hitting a wall

The long runs aren't quite there yet in the same way that they were in high school -- he had only two that went for longer than 30 yards on the season -- but his vision improved as the season went along, he ran hard every time he had the football, he did a solid job protecting it, and he showed some utility out of the backfield, averaging nearly 14 yards per reception, most of which can in the screen game.

Running backs translate from high school to college better than any other position and Gray was no exception. He wasn't spectacular, but he was really, really good at times and will only continue to get better.

2. Malcom Brown, freshman defensive tackle

About 20 months ago, the odds of signing Brown looked slim after he missed a Texas Junior Day. But then the Longhorns raced past the Aggies in his recruitment and now Brown is the most promising defensive tackle on the roster after flashing at times as a true freshman, no easy task for a defensive tackle.

Making plays wasn't always easy for Brown considering how much time he spent looping outside on twists. When he was given the opportunity to beat the person in front of him, Brown was able to register two tackles for loss and had a fourth-down sack called back against West Virginia because the Longhorns had called timeout.

Blessed with remarkable quickness for his size and with a motor that always runs hot, Brown plays hard every snap and will hustle downfield in an attempt to make stops.

Given those attributes, if he can stay healthy, he could be in line for a true break-out season next year.

3. Daje Johnson, freshman running back

It didn't take long for Johnson to get on the wrong side of his coaches -- after enrolling in the summer, the local product managed to earn himself a suspension for the opener before he had even played a game at Texas.

It also didn't take Johnson long to make a big play, taking his second offensive touch as a Longhorn to the house on a push pass against New Mexico from 45 yards out. Against Baylor, Johnson took the first play of the game 84 yards for a touchdown. In the win over Oklahoma State, Johnson managed to average more than 11 yards on his four catches, despite the fact that several of them were blown up behind the line of scrimmage, requiring Johnson to break tackles to avoid negative plays.

Johnson didn't catch a pass between the Kansas and Kansas State games, but when he finally did, he took another push pass 70 yards.

Bigger and stronger than DJ Monroe and with better hands, Johnson has the ability to become the running and pass-catching threat that Monroe could never become because of his issues catching the football.

Assuming that Johnson can keep his grades and behavior in order, the hope is that Major Applewhite will find a way to more effectively use the Hendrickson product more often.

4. Peter Jinkens, freshman linebacker

Known as an emotional and fiery player from his time at Skyline (and occasional antics on Twitter), Jenkins was the beneficiary of Manny Diaz finally shaking up his rotation at linebacker and giving the true freshman substantial game reps for the first game against Iowa State late in the season.

Though Jinkens missed several tackles in the game, including one that resulted in a touchdown, he also made eight total tackles and showed an aptitude for making tackles in the open field -- of his 19 tackles on the year, 12 of them were solo, an area in which Demarco Cobbs notably struggled.

In a linebacker corps that includes two bigger linebacker in Steve Edmond and Kendall Thompson, Jinkens actually provides the speed and range to effectively combat spread teams and clearly cares on the field, playing with intensity and reckless abandon.

Sometimes he doesn't know when to turn it off, as he failed to do when he walked away from Mack Brown after making a mistake in the Kansas State game, which could not have endeared the true freshman to his head coach.

Thing is, Jenkins cares and it's obvious from his efforts on the field. Throw in some actual results and Jinkens looks like a player moving forward.

5. Tevin Jackson, sophomore linebacker

The only sophomore on this list, Jackson lost a year due to late-arising eligibility issues, causing him to spend what should have been his freshman year back in Garland and away from the team.

And in 2011, with three experienced linebackers in Keenan Robinson, Emmanuel Acho, and Jordan Hicks getting the majority of the snaps, Jackson was lost in the shuffle, mostly reduced to seeing special teams action.

This season, it was much of the same, as Jackson was noticeably absent in the rotation despite the clear struggles of the players in front of him as the bigger linebackers showed little in the way of instincts or range.

It wasn't until the Kansas game that Jackson finally made a real appearance, registering a sack early on a blitz, a sign of things to come, as the Garland product kept that role, which eventually expanded enough that he was used a spy at times against Trevone Boykin on Thanksgiving, a game that also included a big tackle on a reverse.

Of the young linebackers, Jackson has the best combination of size and athleticism -- raising questions about why it took him so long to see the field. Given his usage, it's likely that he's still quite raw, as he played a Sergio Kindle-type role that often had him blitzing and stunting towards the line of scrimmage.

With a strong bowl season and offseason, Jackson could challenge the two bigger linebackers for playing time in 2013.

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