The coincidence was not lost on Johnathan Gray.
The Longhorns’ tailback, meeting with the media on Monday for the first time since his season-ending Achilles injury at West Virginia, recalled a conversation he’d had last week with Donald Nguyen, an assistant athletic trainer.
Gray had just seen linebacker Jordan Hicks, who was recuperating from his own Achilles injury suffered against Kansas State, and Gray asked Nguyen what an Achilles injury feels like.
Nguyen replied that it feels like someone kicked you, recalled Gray, who now knows the feeling.
“I feel like I kind of jinxed myself,” he said Monday with a chuckle.
Texas’ leading rusher was in remarkably high spirits Monday. But that, combined with defensive tackle Chris Whaley’s season-ending knee injury suffered in the first quarter of Texas’ 47-40 overtime win and earlier injuries to Hicks, quarterback David Ash, defensive back Sheroid Evans and right tackle Josh Cochran must have the Longhorns wondering if they’re a jinxed team, at least on the medical front.
“This team has been very resilient,” head coach Mack Brown said. “It’s always been ‘Next man up.’ That’s just who they are.”
Indeed, the 24th-ranked Longhorns (7-2, 6-0) haven’t let the rash of injuries to key players derail them. If anything, the medical misfortunes have seemed to fortify their will and determination as they’ve extended their Big 12 winning streak to six games to stay atop the league standings.
It doesn’t get easier, though. The meat of Texas’ schedule looms down the stretch. It starts Saturday when No. 12 Oklahoma State visits, looking for its third straight victory at Royal-Memorial Stadium.
The injuries to Gray and Whaley significantly alter the look of the Longhorns.
Instead of Gray, the Big 12’s third-leading rusher (780 yards), teaming with Malcolm Brown as one of the top tailback tandems in the league, it will be Brown and Joe Bergeron. Instead of Whaley — the only defensive tackle in school history to have scored two touchdowns in the same season — it will be Desmond Jackson lined up next to Malcom Brown.
“It’s a big blow, but we’ve had a lot of blows this year with injuries,” defensive end Cedric Reed said. “It’s just football. We have to move on, man.”
Added fullback Alex De La Torre, whose first career touchdown came on a pass from Case McCoy that ended up winning the game: “We all earn our scholarship here. We all come here to play. When the time comes, we’ve got guys who can step up and keep that same level of play.”
Still, the importance of those injured players can’t be denied. Mack Brown won’t even try.
After the win in Morgantown, Brown presented game balls in the locker room to Gray and Whaley. And for the first time in his 16 seasons at Texas, Brown said he will have all the injured players stay and be involved with their teammates at the team hotel Friday night before Saturday’s game.
Jackson, who started 11 games as a sophomore in 2012, was especially moved by being thrust into Whaley’s position. He talked briefly to a distraught Whaley on the field after his injury, before he was carted to the locker room.
“I told him, ‘Chris, I’m going to play this game for you. I’m going to do everything I need to do to make you proud,’ ” Jackson said. “When I talked to Chris after the game, he said he didn’t cry because of the pain. He cried because he didn’t want to leave the field and leave his teammates.
“It just hurt my heart to see him like that.”
But it did the Longhorns’ collective heart good to see how Jackson responded — two sacks, a forced fumble and eight tackles. But Texas also will need to get contributions the rest of the way from redshirt freshman Hassan Ridgeway, whom Mack Brown described as “on and off.”
“He’s got outstanding ability, but he gets tired quickly,” Brown said. “He’s going to have to really step up and play meaningful snaps.”
For his part, Gray also wants to make a meaningful contribution in his new role.
“You need guys on the sideline who support you and have your back, no matter what,” Gray said. “Chris and I have a passion for the game. Our job is to lead and be the cheerleaders for our team. That’s what our goal is now.”
24-Texas vs. 12-Oklahoma State, 2:30 p.m., Fox, 1300, 98.1
Join beat writers Randy Riggs, Mark Rosner and Dave Behr at 11 a.m. Tuesday for their weekly Longhorns chat at statesman.com/bevobeat.