The Texas Longhorns may not put star running back Johnathan Gray in bubble wrap during fall camp, but rest assured that head coach Charlie Strong is ready to do everything possible to protect his best player.
After all, Gray only carried the ball twice during the Orange-White game. Now Strong has already made his expectations clear for the former consensus five-star prospect.
"He's got to be a back who can protect himself," Strong told Campus Insiders' Bonnie Bernstein at Big 12 Media Days. "What I mean by protect himself is that he has to run behind his pads and just stay down and not take the licks. I said, 'J-Gray, I don't need to see how tough you are -- you have to just get out of bounds.' I know a lot of people don't like to see their running back run out of bounds, but I need him. I need more plays out of him."
Strong added that he's expecting big things from the senior running back and doesn't have to worry about his competitiveness, though the latter is hardly a revelation since Gray's work ethic and desire to succeed haven't ever been in question.
About those big expectations, though? When assessing the team in a vacuum from the perspective of the running back position, the lack of proven experience behind Gray, and the fact that he will likely be the team's best player means that his value makes his health a top priority since a significant injury would in all likelihood represent a season-changing moment for the Horns.
Surely, Gray won't be able to operate in a vaccuum, but he's healthy and should benefit from the quarterback run game and overall offensive changes. If he can find some more seams as a result, as he definitely did at times in practice during the spring, the shake in his hips and his open-field elusiveness are at an all-time high -- the last time that Gray looked like he did late last season, he was setting records in high school.
At the least, if Texas is going to have a successful 2015 offensively, it will need the first 1,000-yard season from a Longhorns running back since Jamaal Charles in 2007, a season in which the elusive and explosive star carried the ball 258 times and gained 1,619 yards, a similar workload in attempts as the two Big 12 running backs with the most attempts last season -- Oklahoma's Samaje Perine and Baylor's Shock Linwood -- and a workload that Gray handled frequently in high school since he averaged around 300 carries a season and had 376 as a sophomore.
If he can put up a statline of around 250 carries at five yards per attempt with a career-high 12 touchdowns and four carries of 40 or more yards, it would be a tremendously positive sign that he's stayed completely healthy and that some of the pieces have started to click around him.
And no one will judge Johnathan Gray harshly if he leaves a few yards on the field to ensure that he can reach that level of production, least of all Charlie Strong.