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Texas football: Longhorns spring RB preview

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It's shaping up like the J-Gray show in 2015. Can the young running backs already on campus step up?

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

The running back position for the Texas Longhorns isn't as thin as the quarterback position, but it doesn't exactly have ideal depth with only three scholarship players this spring.

So senior Johnathan Gray, sophomore D'Onta Foreman, and redshirt freshman Donald "Duke" Catalon will all have plenty of opportunities this spring. The reps for Foreman and Catalon are especially important since Foreman played sparingly last season before suffering a season-ending hand injury in the middle of November and Catalon didn't play at all following a hamstring injury in order to preserve his season of eligibility.

There's also some pressure on both of those players to impress the coaches because three running backs will arrive with the other 2015 signees in June -- No. 8 running back Chris Warren, Texas legacy Kirk Johnson, and potential specialty back Tristian Houston. If Foreman and Catalon don't impress during the spring, they could lose fall reps to the younger players.

The ideal scenario is both players showing skill sets that will help them contribute as change-of-pace backs for the starter Gray to help replace the production lost from the graduation of Malcolm Brown, who led the team with 708 rushing yards.

Here are the major questions for the group.

Can Johnathan Gray continue to regain his explosiveness?

At the start of the 2014 season, Gray clearly wasn't right less than one year removed from the Achilles injury that ended his sophomore season. But by about late October or early November, flashes of the old Gray started to reappear.

One of the major knocks on Gray throughout most of his first three seasons on campus was the disappearance of his make-you-miss ability in the open field. He'll never have the size to consistently run through tackles at the line of scrimmage, but his open-field instincts were always one of his best qualities dating back to high school.

As the run above shows, Gray started to flash that prep ability at times late in 2014 and it could be a major boon for the Horns in 2015 if he can continue to do the same.

It seems clear at this point that he's not the all-world running back in college his prep production suggested when he was a consensus five-star prospect, the No. 6 prospect, and the top running back. However, he still has a chance to become one of the best running backs in the Big 12 and operate in a truly feature role for the first time in his career.

So what is his upside? Can he be a 1,500-yard back with 10 or more touchdowns and five or more runs of 40 or more yards? Gray managed two runs in 2014 of 40 or more yards and scored seven touchdowns, so the 1,500 yards may be the most difficult mark to reach of all those numbers.

Since he arrived on campus, he's been known as a strong and natural leader, a role he can continue to grow into this season as the unquestioned heart and soul of the offense. As disappointing his lack of major production has been, Gray is every bit of the solid citizen he was made out to be when he left Aledo, with his quick rehabilitation last year proof positive of his impressive work ethic.

Is D'Onta Foreman as good as his best moments in 2014?

The first time that Foreman touched the ball as a Longhorn, he ripped off a 34-yard run late in the opener against North Texas. The 6'2, 215-pounder didn't have to do much except come downhill into a gaping hole and then take the sideline, though he showed the college-level explosiveness in running away from several opponents that looked questionable in high school. Against Kansas State, he followed two blockers through a hole on the right side and stepped through traffic on the way to 16 yards.

Credit to Foreman for the basic vision level necessary to make the right plays on the runs, it's just hard to take much from the best plays of his freshman season. Plus, his last 11 carries on the season went for only 23 yards.

As a high school senior, though, Foreman ran for nearly 1,900 yards by hitting an extra gear in the open field and running tough with high effort to break tackles, appearing to improve dramatically in both of those facets sine his junior campaign.

He's obviously not a jump cutter at his size, but he does have some subtle moves through traffic to get past the line of scrimmage that should translate well to college if he can continue to get behind his pads and make himself difficult to bring down.

As a consensus mid three-star prospect for Foreman out of high school, the expectations weren't that high for the lesser-regarded Foreman twin. Based his physical development, though, the big back has a chance to become an effective short-yardage back and fourth-quarter bludgeon for the Longhorns.

What does Texas have in Donald Catalon?

Despite all of the obvious talent in high school, Catalon never scored more than seven touchdowns or ran for 1,100 yards or more, even failing to hit 1,000 as a senior when dealing with a foot injury. Still, had he not suffered the hamstring injury in fall camp, Catalon was a candidate to receive some opportunities in 2014.

And the numbers listed above are a little bit deceiving -- Catalon gained over 400 yards through the air as a senior, so he's effective in the screen game and split out as a wide receiver, making him the perfect candidate to win a role as the third-down back this season to spell Gray.

Even if the offense goes up tempo and doesn't substitute enough to truly have such a role, Catalon projects as a versatile player who could create mismatches in such an attack lining up in different spots if he trades series with Gray.

There's a nice blend of subtle moves that make him difficult to square up in the hole and ability to get behind his pads, but he's not big enough at around 200 pounds to use his mass to move the pile and he's not seen as a prospect with home-run ability. So there are some limits to his upside.

On the other hand, since Catalon hasn't been healthy in two years, there's more ability there than he's been able to show in some time, even if he's not the next Jamaal Charles. The key is that he's a no-nonsense runner with good vision who won't leave yards on the field, a trait that should give him a high floor.