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Johnathan Gray Potential X-Factor Against Oklahoma

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The record-setting back got to Texas with high expectations and a stacked depth chart in front of him. Through five games, he's seemingly getting better every time he touches the ball.

Ronald Martinez - Getty Images

With no news on sophomore running back Malcolm Brown yet, there's a chance the Texas Longhorns will once again be without one of their starting running backs on Saturday.

If Brown can't go after injuring his ankle in the second half against Oklahoma State almost two weeks ago, the pressure will once again be on true freshman Johnathan Gray, who has emerged in recent weeks as he becomes more comfortable and the coaches begin to trust him more.

Now the triggerman in the Wildcat package, which co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin used on four consecutive plays early in the second half against West Virginia, Gray is increasingly becoming a focal point of the offense, as many predicted coming into the season.

Gray has gotten some good tutelage on the position, though the knowledge hasn't been directly conveyed:

I watched film on [former Longhorn] Fozzy [Whittaker] and how he did it. When Coach [Mack Brown] puts you in the game and expects you to run a play to the best of your ability, you have to do it. For me as a freshman, "wildcat," I have to perform it and try to do my best at it.

In high school, the best from Gray was as good as any running back to ever wear a high school uniform.

As a three-time state champion who was on the biggest of high school stages since leading Aledo to a state title as a sophomore, Gray has experience being under the microscope.

So while he's still transitioning to college and life in the fishbowl that is Texas football, few players have entered the program more prepared for the transition than the record-setting former prep star, according to position coach Major Applewhite:

If you have been to the community and you see how much Aledo kind of rode his success and how that community gravitated towards him and then his junior year and senior year winning all those national awards. I think he has been someone who was created underneath the spotlight and that is what he is taken to.

Forged under the Friday night lights, Gray didn't blink under the brightest of Saturday night lights last weekend. At least to hear Applewhite tell it:

I don't think he would feel it any other way. I didn't notice any nervousness or any big eyes the other night and that was one of the best and biggest atmospheres I have ever been a part of, period. As a fan or coach.

Despite all those carries in high school -- the state championships, the awards -- Gray did admit that he was a bit of a saucer-eyed freshman when he opened the season against Wyoming.

My first carry was nerve-racking as a freshman going into a game like that. I saw the chains, and we work everyday on down and distance. For me, I felt like I had to get the first down to prove that I could play. That was my first reaction, and we got the first down so I was happy and we went from there.

Not a bad start to a career.

Gray visibly grew in his comfort level during the Ole Miss game as the coaches began to trust him more, nearly breaking several plays and notably trucking a defender on one, a physical play for a back who used his other attributes to rack up so many touchdowns in high school.

With Malcolm Brown out due to the ankle injury he suffered in the first half, Gray was a big part of the fourth-quarter success running the football as the Longhorns began to impose their will on the Cowboys for the first time.

Last weekend, his 49-yard run was the longest of his young career and one of the longest of the season for Texas after the 54-yard romp by Joe Bergeron against Wyoming. On that play, Gray got into the open field before giving some evidence of his ability to maximize runs by setting up defenders and then making them miss. In high school, he would have scored, but the pursuit from behind kept him from his first collegiate touchdown, which could come against Oklahoma on a longer run.

Otherwise, look for touchdown-stealer extraordinaire Bergeron to shark it.

And since Gray did get caught from behind, Harsin said that his teammates gave him a hard time about it in the film room.

It was actually one of the positive plays that we watched, and just to see Johnathan it's actually kind of funny when you get a chance to slow it down and watch it, just kind of slithering through back and forth and guys were kind of giggling watching him there. And then like anybody, if a punter catches you on the punt return, it's like, "Aww." You'd like to see him get in. But like we said, each week he's gotten better and better. That will continue.

If Gray had a hiccup during the West Virginia game, it was in pass protection and lead to a sack, a major reason why he didn't see much early playing time in the first two games. As a student of the game, it's an area that the former Aledo star will continue to hone as he gets older and stronger.

There was some speculation that Gray might not be happy with his lack of early carries, but perspective has never been something that he's lacked and after surgeries on both shoulders, Gray approached his recruiting process with the understanding that he wanted to share carries in college, knowing that every running back only has so many carries in their body.

Since he has been getting more carries every week, he's increased his output in each game, rushing for 87 yards against West Virginia to lead the team.

The young back himself deserves a lot of credit for his remarkable maturity and selflessness, but his father, former Texas Tech running back James Gray, also deserves a significant amount himself.

His son is willing to give give some credit where it's due in regards to his even attitude towards carries:

My dad helped me a lot with that. He was like, "You are not going to start right away as a freshman. You have some great backs in front of you and you have to watch what they do and then you'll start getting in the mix."

And though Bergeron and Brown don't have much collegiate experience as true sophomores, they have been through one season and Jeremy Hills and DJ Monroe have both been in the program for five years, so they bring a wealth of knowledge to the table that they are sharing with the young back

That is what I am doing. I am working hard and learning from those guys. They are teaching me some great things, and I am taking it from there.

For any player coming out of high school after having experienced great success, it can be hard to handle different expectations, both their own and those placed on them by their coaches.

Where once Gray was expected to break long runs and score touchdowns every couple of touches, which he did, now the focus is on taking what's there, about picking up four yards on plays that are only blocked for four.

He sees it and understands it as he has gotten more through fall camp and the early part of the season, he is starting-I can tell in meetings that if you make a comment to a back like, ‘hey that is a great run right there. You know you are hitting the backfield and getting 2 or 3 yards out of it, that is a great run.' And I can see that head bobbing. So he gets it and understands it.

Will Gray keep on improving? There's obviously a limit to his current trajectory of gaining more yards every game, but Harsin believes that he'll put in the work to get there:

He'll be the first one [to say], "I've got to improve." You like that about him. He's got a great mentality just as far as, "All I've got to do is get better." And that's his whole mindset, and he's doing that week to week.

If Gray is better than last week, if he can find the endzone for the first time as a Longhorn, if he can break one of those momentum-swinging plays that characterize the Cotton Bowl, he could be the X-factor in this game as a true freshman after Mack Brown famously failed to play Cedric Benson as a freshman.