AUSTIN, Texas -- Ever since he was 15, Johnathan Gray’s feats have been met with effusive praise. And his latest one might be his finest.
Charlie Strong told a kickoff luncheon crowd last week that a Texas assistant recently offered up some feedback: “Why can’t everyone work out like Johnathan Gray?” That’s high praise considering what the running back has already endured in 2014.
If you saw him in fall practice this month, you wouldn’t know Gray is coming back from a torn Achilles suffered last November. His recovery from that gruesome season-ending injury has been nothing short of freakish.
The initial prognosis from team doctors suggested Gray would be sidelined eight to 10 months. He got back in seven. Now he says he’s better than ever.
“Everybody was surprised at how I came back,” Gray said. “Months of rehab and staying in the training room constantly and trying to get back, it really paid off.”
Gray knew from his days as a five-star rusher at Aledo (Texas) High School that he was a quick healer. When he first went down, on Nov. 9 at West Virginia, many feared he might not be back for the 2014 opener. Gray never saw it that way.
“In my mind it was always, ‘You’re going to be back in time. Don’t know when, but you’re going to be back in time,’” he said. “That’s what I was always telling myself. It was a long process and a painful process, but I kept pushing it.”
Gray was officially cleared for fall camp on July 21, but he’d already been working out again by then. His recovery time puts the junior back in elite company with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Terrell Suggs and Michael Crabtree. And you better believe he had them in mind as he charted out his rehabilitation plan.
“Kobe, I don’t know how he walked off the court with a torn Achilles, but he came back at a respectable time,” Gray said. “At that time it was like, OK, there’s hope for me to come back and play.”
He had a surplus of motivation on the winter and spring days he got up at 6 a.m. for agility and cutting drills, mobility training and innumerable calf raises. After all, Gray had been cut down in the midst of a legitimate breakthrough season. He was the No. 4 rusher in the Big 12 and on pace for more than 1,100 rushing yards as a sophomore.
He sensed his strength was fully back by late summer. When fall camp first began, Gray said he might’ve been 95 percent ready to go. As for his quickness?
“The burst is back,” Gray said. “Like I said, I’m back to the same Johnathan Gray. I’m ready.”
And that’s a scary idea for the rest of the conference. Gray can’t wait to tag-team with senior Malcolm Brown, who rushed for 534 yards after Gray went down and is now in the best shape of his career at sleek 218 pounds.
Brown was in the Erwin Center last week when Strong offered up the praise of Gray’s practice habits. He definitely wasn’t surprised.
“J-Gray just doesn’t get tired,” Brown said. “J-Gray works his tail off each and every day. That’s definitely a great example.”
Strong and running backs coach Tommie Robinson have still taken a cautious approach when it comes to practice reps, which can’t be easy considering Texas’ No. 3 back is injured and its No. 4 option just arrived on campus.
“We have to be very, very smart about just how much work he does,” Strong said. “He's going to get sore at some point. … We don't need to just throw him out there, and he can go play 60 plays in a row. That's not going to happen. He's going to get a little, come back, rest, get a little, come back and rest. We have to get him to the game.”
Robinson proudly says he didn’t watch film of Gray’s past two seasons in the interest of giving him a fresh start. In fact, until this month, he hadn’t seen Gray play a game since those days at Aledo, where the national phenom rushed for 10,908 yards, a record 205 touchdowns and won three state rings.
But he did get another glimpse of Gray’s character last month, during a phone call after Joe Bergeron and Jalen Overstreet were kicked off the team. Those departures left the Longhorns with Gray, Brown, a pair of freshmen and a few walk-ons in their running back room.
After the painstaking offseason Gray just survived, that new reality -- less help, more teaching and more pressure -- seems like no big deal.
“He took a deep breath,” Robinson recalled, “and he said, ‘We got it, Coach.’"