Ahhh. But Donald Gray was still pretty good as a sophomore transfer. Now a junior, a veteran, and with some quality catches to his credit, Mississippi State can expect him to be even better in the 2016 receiving corps.
A peer certainly thinks so. No less an authority than Fred Ross has alerted all to watch a breakout year from Gray. “For him to say that means a lot for me. I hear it,” Gray said.
“But at the same time, I don’t. I still have a lot to prove. I’m glad he says that, it kind of gives me motivation. But I let it kind of go in one ear and out the other and still work.”
Gray is very much at work this preseason. He’s counted on by the rest of the offensive squad to raise his contributions from 21 catches, 386 yards, and two touchdowns. By the way, his 18.4 yards-per-grab were the best on the entire team. Not bad for a rotation receiver, hey?
This season he will still be rotating…but in a bigger and better way. Gray goes into ’16 as a starter at ‘X’ receiver, one of the split ends. There’s no official depth chart of course. But it’s presumed Ross will be starting at slot (H) and Gabe Myles at Z, the other split end.
Not that it matters where anyone is listed. Not based on practices.
“I’m rotating at both,” Gray said, meaning both X and Z. He likes it this way too because it opens both the field and his knowledge of the entire offense.
“Rotating kind of helped me think a little bit more on the field, not get comfortable in one spot. Because it might be a situation that I might have to go to a Z, or whoever it might be. It might be Fred to the X, move Gabe to the H, move me to the Z or put Malik (Dear) in. Anything like that. It helped me rotating back and forth.”
It also helped, in an unintended way, that Gray had to miss half of spring ball. A nagging knee situation developed and finally sent him to the sideline to rehab. And, to watch.
At least Gray had done several days of drills first. That and his actual fall experience gave Gray a much, much better vantage point on SEC receiving. “It really gave me time to reflect a lot,” he said. “It gave me more time to be patient with the process.”
Patience…was not exactly a virtue up to then. Stardom came too, ahem, fast in high school football, and the one season he was detoured to Copiah-Lincoln CC after signing with State in 2013. Big things were forecast when he finally got to campus in ’15. “I mean I thought I was ready.”
“Coming in I thought it was just all about catching the ball, all about running an OK route. Which I did those. Blocking? Running crisp routes, knowing how to check routes as you see a blitz or reading coverages…there was a lot of stuff I didn’t know that I thought I knew. I just thought it was about going out there and playing football. But it’s a lot more.”
That said, Gray was good enough to get his share of rotation snaps anyway. He said by mid-season though he knew, good enough wasn’t good enough any more.
“I really sat down and just thought about everything, watched a lot of film and actually started listening to coach about things. Now I’m actually figuring it out. Like, well OK, this is the reason why I wasn’t playing.”
Spring setback, if that’s what it was, aside Gray has known since the Belk Bowl he was going to be playing a lot more in 2016. Likely starting, too. And leadership, that comes into play now that he’s one of the vets.
Gray said he won’t try to be ‘big Dog’ as was Dak Prescott. No one Dog can this year. Instead there’s room for lots of leaders.
And speaking of big… Gray brings almost 205 pounds into play this year, up a bunch from his original 190. “I was like weightroom, weightroom, weightroom, that’s all I wanted to do.” Catch that? Gray WANTED weightroom time. Most players tolerate it, this guy loved it.
But then he had a head-start.
“My Dad was a body builder. He was kind of into that. So when I was little I really wanted to become a body builder! That was my obsession. I think I spent a lot of time in the weightroom, I wanted to impress people when I walked outside, you know, kind of show off my muscles a little bit!”
Now Gray will show-off his strength at the expense of cornerbacks and safeties and such. He’s still just as fast as before. But Gray learned speed just puts him on the same even field as SEC defensive backs.
“When I got here, man, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Still somedays I still can’t honestly! Everybody is good, so there’s a lot of things you have to work on. Even the small stuff.”
Yet it’s these small things that lead to big plays. And, which added to Gray’s own gifts will make him as good as everyone expects this Dog to be in 2016. Not that Gray will stop there, satisfied.
“I really don’t have the time to even sit around and get complacent where I’m at. I’ve got to stay down so I can come up.”