Texas Longhorn offensive coordinator Joe Wickline falls into a pretty good looking offensive situation as playcaller in 2014. He has a senior quarterback, returns lots of receptions and yards at receiver, and inherits a highly recruited group of offensive linemen to work with in building his offense. But nowhere on the offensive side of the football is Texas stronger or more accomplished in 2014 than at the running back position. They feature three players who should all play on Sundays.
Of course, the carries can not be evenly split between all three running backs, so I’ll look at all three guys and how their skill sets might fit in the Texas offense in 2014.
Johnathan Gray was the top rated running back in the 2012 class (according to Rivals), and the jewel of the class of 2012 for the Texas football program. Gray is going to face questions of his size at the next level, but is of average size for a Big XII RB and has flashed remarkable elusiveness and speed. He’s also been consistently productive, putting up back to back seasons where he carried the ball 149 and 159 times the last two years, averaging 4.8 yards a carry on those runs. Those numbers aren’t eye-popping, but they are good. Perhaps even a bit better than expected even considering his lofty status as a recruit.
Gray played his high school ball at Aledo High School in Aledo, Texas. He had two shoulder surgeries as a high school athlete, but didn’t miss time. Gray did miss the final four games of Texas’ 2013 season with an injury, however.
If there is a spot where Gray could use some improvement in his game, it’s in the passing game. As a smaller speed-type back, NFL scouts will want to see his development in picking up linebackers in the passing game, and his ability to be a difference maker out of the backfield. He has shown improvement throughout the last two seasons. Texas also has struggled to feature Gray in the passing attack because there are other more experienced options.
When Gray was playing his senior season at Aledo, Malcolm Brown was a 5-star recruit freshman leading the Texas Longhorns in rushing. Like Gray, Brown came to Austin with questions to answer about his long speed and effectiveness in the passing game. When featured as a freshman, offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin more or less ignored his running back in the passing game. Brown rushed for 742 yards on 172 attempts as a Freshman, but caught only three passes. Brown started the season as Texas’ top back in 2012, but got injured about a month into the season, and turned over the featured role to Gray.
Brown could have easily been looking to head for the pros at first opportunity, but when his next opportunity came at the end of the 2013 season, he was excellent. Brown put some great development as a receiver on tape, highlighted by a four catch performance against Baylor in miserable conditions in Waco. He carried the ball 25 or more times in five consecutive games to close the 2013 season with Gray on the mend.
Malcolm Brown still doesn’t feature rare long speed, but he’s the prototype back that NFL teams look for. Despite this, he wanted to return to Texas to play his senior season in 2014, which is pretty cool for Longhorn fans.
Bergeron’s path to becoming a member of the Texas Three-Headed Monster is just a little bit different than Gray and Brown. Bergeron was a three star recruit who was an on-the-radar guy in terms of recruiting, but really burst onto the scene during his senior season at North Mesquite High School. Bergeron rushed for 1,578 yards as a senior, his first year as a full time back. He committed to Texas that December, almost seven months after Malcolm Brown did. Johnathan Gray committed to the Longhorns before Bergeron ever played a snap.
Naturally, he wasn’t going to be able to walk onto campus and be the starter. Bergeron could easily have taken a redshirt year to bulk up, but Mack Brown opted to play him as a freshman as a change-of-pace for Brown. He was the featured back against Texas Tech as a freshman, carrying 29 times for 191 yards. But he wore down at the end of the season, and missed the Robert Griffin Heisman coronation game in Waco.
Since then, Bergeron has been buried on the depth chart, but always seems to work his way into the game. Whether it’s the ability to be productive in limited time at the end of a blowout (15 carries, 110 yards against Wyoming in 2012), or as the second head of a dual-headed rushing attack (17 carries, 102 yards against Texas Tech in 2013), Bergeron is productive nearly every time he hits the field. After getting hit with the injury-prone tag in 2011, Bergeron has played in every game for Texas since.
He’s not going to enter next year higher than third on the depth chart, but as the three-star guy among five-stars, Bergeron knows best how to find new ways to be productive.