Gray, a Florida native, is a versatile athlete that Coach Mark Farley uses in various positions. A shifty and speedy receiver, Gray is considered an explosive player and has caught a pass in 24 straight games. He will be quarterback Pat Grace's primary target, and the person responsible for keeping this First-Team All-Gateway wide receiver in check will be junior Cougar cornerback Brandon Howard.
"He's more of a slot guy," said Howard about Gray. "They use him in a lot of screens and things like that. He's quick and has a little wiggle to him, so he's someone that we're going to have to be aware of. They like to try and get the ball in his hands as much as possible."
Gray comes in at about 5 feet 9 inches and 195 pounds and led the Panther offense in receptions (70), ranking him as the nation's 33rd best receiver last season. He also received punt return duties and averaged 16.9 yards per return. He was ranked fourth in the nation is punt return average. Look for Gray to be used within the Panther passing attack much how BYU coaches used former BYU wide receiver Nate Meikle.
"He's their main guy," said G Pittman. "He's not very tall and he's about my size but he's quick. He's not afraid of anything and will go up and get the ball, so we're really going to have to attack him. He's their main guy they'll try and throw it to."
Along with Gray, the Cougar secondary will become very familiar with 6-foot-4-inch, 227-pound senior wide receiver Victor Williams, who, like Gray, is from Florida. Williams was tied for the team lead with five touchdowns last season, and was ranked third on the team with 40 receptions for 520 yards.
"They have a big body receiver in [Williams]," said Howard. "He's a big, athletic receiver and is a lot faster than Eastern Washington's [Aaron Bryce] from last year. [Williams] has a big body and knows how to use it from what I've seen. He's also a great blocker. So, he'll be one of their main guys."
"They like to leave [Williams] on the back side," said Pittman. "He's a bigger receiver … and they try to get it to him on a hitch and hope he can use his size to break a tackle, so we have to make sure we wrap him up and do our job."
Williams may not be as shifty as Gray, but his height definitely makes him an interesting matchup against the Cougars' smaller cornerbacks. Along with receivers Gray and Williams, the Panther offense does have a deep threat in Montari Leonard. Leonard only caught eight passes last year but led the team in yards per reception (19.6).
"He's a guy that can stretch the defense because he's really fast," said Howard regarding Leonard. "He'll be someone that we'll have to watch for in deeper coverages."
The responsibility of neutralizing the deep threat of Leonard - who is also from Florida and was considered one of the top wide receivers in Central Florida while in high school - will fall into the hands of Cougar safety Kellen Fowler and David Tafuna.
"What these receivers do well is getting yards after the catch," Howard said. "They catch the ball and then try and make something happen after that, so we're going to have to cover well, pursue well and make tackles."
With the ride option offense being a part of the Panther offensive attack, the wide receivers have to learn to be good blockers downfield in order to help free up the running back and quarterback. Pittman has seen that the Panther wide receivers are very good at doing just that.
"They are very good blockers and that's their strong point," Pittman said. "They're very good downfield blockers and probably the best downfield blocking team we've faced in two years. They have a very good coach that teaches them that well. They help out by blocking downfield and they know how to hold their blocks."
The Panther offense does utilize the tight end position. This year's starting tight end is Ryan Mahaffey, a converted fullback. Last season Mahaffey caught four passes.
"I'm still looking at [Mahaffey] and trying to figure his game out," said Howard. "He didn't receive a lot of passes last year."
Along with Mahaffey, the Cougar defenders will see more of a catching threat in 6-foot-7-inch, 244-pound tight end Schyular Oordt. The Cougars could see more of Oordt than Mahaffey in the deeper routes of the tight end passing game.
"They do have another guy [Oordt] who does better in his vertical routes and can get downfield," Howard said. "He's more of an inside-type tight end, but he does run well and gets downfield fairly well."
Oordt saw action in all 13 games last year and caught 12 passes - six of which went for at least 22 yards - in a backup role last season. However, he should see more time this year.
"They're all very good athletes," Pittman said. "You can see that on film that they can all be D-I players but … didn't make the grade for some reason or another."
Utilizing the Passing Game
The Panther offense is a combination between the offenses of Utah and Tulsa. Utah runs a ride option spread offense while Tulsa runs a similar offense but out of different formations. The wide receivers will line up in various formations within these types of offensive formations.
"Yeah, they run ride from a spread," Howard said. "It's similar to Utah and Tusla. They do a good job with their ride game, but I think our defense does well against that kind of offense. We've seen that type of offense within our own conference, so we've seen a lot of that."
"We noticed they run a lot of everything," said Pittman. "They'll give us a whole lot of different looks. They probably took a look at our Tulsa games over the past couple of years and think they can probably attack us in that way. We'll probably see a lot of gadget plays and stuff. Their offensive line scheme is a lot like Tulsa with a little of Utah in there too, so we'll probably see a lot of gadget plays, fake screens, all streaks and stuff like that.
"Like coach always says, ‘They can beat us but they won't trick us. If they're a better team than us, then they're better than us. However, they're not going to beat us by tricking us.'"
The first read the cornerbacks will make will be how many receivers are lining up on either the field or boundary side. Making sure the secondary and linebackers are all on the same page will be one key the Cougar defenders will check for.
"For me, I play the field side, so that means I'll be playing the side with the most receivers," said Howard. "Every once in awhile there maybe three guys lining up on the boundary side, but for the most part I just check to see how many receivers are lined up on my side of the field. I'll be talking to David Tafuna next to me out on the field and David Nixon next to me as well, making sure we're all on the same page. We have our call and then we all go through our progressions."
Furthermore, the cornerbacks will have to remain focused while playing assignment football and keeping in mind the overall Panther offensive scheme. Remembering the "big picture" is something Coach Hill has pounded into the minds of his secondary.
"We have to play smart and look at the big picture," said Pittman. "Coach always tells us to look at the bigger picture, to use our instinct if we feel something from the backside or feel that they're really not trying to block us, [and] play our assignments. We as cornerbacks have to play our assignments to make sure nothing like what happened to us [during the Tulsa game] last year happens again. We saw that and experienced that and it's not going to happen again. Part of growing and getting better happens by just seeing things like that."
Keys to Secondary Success
"Keep the ball in front of us and make sure they don't trick us," Howard said regarding what the keys to success are. "Staying disciplined and [playing] assignment-sound defense is going to be our focus."
"The keys to victory will be playing smart and sticking to our assignments," said Pittman. "We have to play hard and fast while keeping in mind the bigger picture. If we can do that we'll be successful."
Senior safety Kellen Fowler chimes in with his perspective on Northern Iowa in this Total Blue Sports interview.