Just a true freshman, Eric Gray has already earned a reputation as one of Bama's most physically talented young athletes. "I just work every day like I'm going to be playing on Saturday," he explained. "Even though I know I'm not, I work hard."
Considered to be the top cornerback prospect in the state last year, Gray committed to the Tide and stuck with them through the various coaching changes. Like most good prep athletes, he was used on offense, gaining 1,965 yards rushing and scoring 21 touchdowns for his West Morgan team.
One of the top recruits in the state, getting used to sitting on the bench during games has not been easy. "The last time I sat on the bench was a long time ago," Gray said with a laugh. "It's been an adjustment. I'm thinking, ‘Man! I want to be out there.' I want to be out there badly. It's tough. You've got to mature the mind."
Gray reminds himself that this year's frustrations will pay off in 2004.
He explained, "You've got to know that you're working to be out on the field like they are now. It's part of the process, to redshirt, to get better and to be on the field next year. I'll work this year to play next year. You've got to look at the big picture."
During games all he can do is cheer and exhort the crowd, but at practice he performs a valuable service on the scout team. The harder he makes his varsity teammates work, the better prepared they'll be on Saturday.
"I'm trying to help the team," Gray said. "I've got to do my part going full speed at practice. That will help me as well as the team."
With coaches always concentrating first on next week's game, designated redshirts like Gray can sometimes be ignored. He understands, but he also takes it as a personal challenge.
"I don't look at it as a time for me to ease off or thinking nobody is watching me," Gray said. "Even if nobody was watching me, I'm grading myself every day. I'm working toward the future."
Several true freshmen have played this season, including Le'Ron McClain, Tyrone Prothro, Dominic Lee and Tim Castille. Gray could easily have joined them. Special Teams Coordinator Dave Ungerer definitely wanted Gray for the Bama kicking game and argued to get him.
"He wanted me to play on special teams real bad," Gray said. "The coaches were willing to go ahead and let me play, but they talked with me about it. We decided that I didn't want to just play."
Gray had the talent to contribute this year, but Alabama was deep at cornerback. So the decision was made not to play him on special teams alone. Gray explained, "They wanted me to be used on defense as well, but considering how deep we are at cornerback...
"When it came down to it, I think they made the best decision for me and for the team."
"Next year it's going to be up to me," Gray said. "We've got a couple of guys graduating. So it'll be a chance for me to walk in. I've talked this whole season about getting myself ready. I want to play next year. I'll have the opportunity and talent to do it, but I've got to keep on working."