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Texas must become a Johnathan Gray-centric offense under Jay Norvell

Head coach Charlie Strong wants to run the football. So why isn't the team's best running back -- and best player -- not the focal point of the offense?

Chris Covatta/Getty Images

Texas Longhorns senior running back Johnathan Gray will also say the right things. Inwardly, however, he has to be seething about his usage during the season opener against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

Even though he's the best player offensively and there's little doubt that he's probably the best player on the entire team, Gray only received eight carries in South Bend despite averaging five yards per attempt. He didn't even touch the football until Texas had already gone three and out twice.

It was a rather shocking development given that head coach Charlie Strong consistently emphasizes the need to run the football, mentioning it at virtually every opportunity. Even when discussing the merits of the hurry-up, no-huddle spread offense that the team supposedly installed during the offseason, the Texas head coach always circles back to being physical in the ground game. In fact, Strong listed running the football as second on his list of five things that he wanted to accomplish

When the Horns finally produced a big play with the 48-yard pass from junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes to freshman wide receiver John Burt in the second half, it was freshman running back Chris Warren who twice plunged into the offensive line for

"We've got to get the ball in his hands," Strong said. "It's very obvious because he's someone that when the ball is in his hands he's electrifying, and he can make people miss and he can get positive yards for us."

Unfortunately for Gray, there just aren't that many touches to go around when the team only runs 52 plays. But there are other issues at work here, too -- when Texas uses packaged plays, it's easy for the defense to dictate that the quarterback throw the football by putting numbers into the box or ensuring that the read defender stays close to the line of scrimmage to induce a pass.

And the Longhorns also inexplicably decided to use drop-back passes in numerous situations, including the 3rd and 3 play on the game's second drive that provided one of the game's enduring images. Then there was another 2nd and 1 that turned into 3rd and 9 due to a sack on a drop-back pass.

Strong admitted that he wasn't paying attention during some offensive possessions because he was so upset with the defense, but he may need to become more involved in the play-to-play decision making against Rice game. Whether or not the Horns pass the ball in a 3rd and short situation is ultimately a choice that goes through him, assuming that he's paying attention to the offensive play call at that point.

It's not just about stubrbornness pounding the ball with Gray against overloaded boxes, though -- it's about the type of complementary play calling that allows one play to work off another.

"It's always when you talk about the spread where you have people running sideways and then all of a sudden you attack them downhill," Strong said. "You run the speed sweep, boom, then all of a sudden here comes the quarterback right behind you. Then next run you hand it to the running back."

For the Longhorns, the attempted mix of plays just wasn't working against the Fighting Irish and that's an indictment of assistant head coach for offense/quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson, who is ultimately responsible for keeping the defense off balance. Given that the Horns have only made one trip into the red zone over the last three games, there's not much Texas is doing to confuse defenses or put them in difficult positions to defend the Horns.

So after deciding not to talk with his staff or players much on Sunday because he was so upset, Strong is in the midst of re-evaluating the entire offense, coaches included, in hopes of finding some answers.

"Well, that's what I said, we have to evaluate it, and it has to come from that whole offensive staff," Strong said. "I know Shawn is the coordinator, but there's other guys involved, even myself involved, and we've just got to evaluate this week and just see exactly where we are.

"We have to change. We have to get better on offense. You're right, you go back, and I know last year is last year, but even to come out of this game with three points, with the players that we have, we should be more productive."

Strong quickly made those changes, as he announced on Tuesday evening that he demoted Watson from play caller to quarterbacks coach and elevated wide receivers coach Jay Norvell to the role of play caller. If Norvell wants to find success at Texas, making Gray the focal point of his offense is a good place to start.