Yet we just have to believe…there was that special someone Gray really wanted to see. Even if he had to haul it out of the equipment room, load it up, plug it in himself. It’s not really a good day if Donald Gray hasn’t worked with the ball-throwing machine.
“I can’t not get on the JUGS,” Gray said. “That’s my baby. That’s who I’m going to marry!”
Hyperbole hopefully aside, this Bulldog receiver is not exaggerating how much mechanical help has meant to his development. Continuing development, too.
Which is something to excite Mississippi State. The 2016 season saw Gray blossom into a serious SEC receiver with 41 balls worth 708 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers were just about double, or better, than what Gray gave as a 2015 sophomore in the receiver rotation.
For perspective, his yardage would have led the team in 14 of the last 20 seasons. Now in 2017 Gray is expected to set the pace, picking-up at least some of Fred Ross’ stats as his two-year teammate moves on to professional football.
“I’m really not nervous about it,” Gray said of higher senior standards. “Fred taught me a lot through the years of being here and I just respect everything about him and I’m happy for him.”
There’s been no lack of teaching and tuning from State’s staff, too. Yet Gray’s favorite instructor is not on the payroll or in the game program. It doesn’t tell him what to do, either…
…but that pass-chucking contraption is quite a coach. “It does a lot for me,” said Gray.
“Hand-eye coordination. It challenges you, you can change the speed if you want to work on fast balls, short balls, long balls. Or you can work on timing your routes coming out. Anything you can think of to correlate with football on-the-field things.”
Understand, this love affair began before Gray met his current flame at State. The first crush came at Copiah-Lincoln C.C…despite some deception from that staff.
“They said it was broke, and they hid it in the closet. One day I was probably doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing! I walked into the weightroom, opened a door, and looked.” There it was, the ball-tossing contraption. “I found a plug, plugged it up, and he lied to me!”
Call it more a fib from staff who didn’t want to be bothered, as Gray did confront Coach Glen Davis with the fresh facts. Long story shortened, soon it was Gray’s regular partner in becoming a real receiver.
“That’s when it developed, my freshman year. Every time around 9:00 or 10:00 when most everybody was in their room I’d go have Farrod (Green, now his teammate but then playing at local Wesson A.C) shoot it. Or have some of my old teammates shoot it to me.”
Machine-aided or not, Gray blossomed in Wesson. He went from a promising Memphis prep prospect to a juco All-American in 2014. He’d sat out 2013 with an ankle injury, an unplanned blessing as things have played out. He was able to re-sign with Dan Mullen’s program with three college seasons still in store yet an extra winter’s physical growth to go with all that offensive experience in a good JC system.
Don’t down-play the physical part, either. Gray is a sculpted 200-plus pounder now and can play bigger than the listed 5-10 stature. But then he’s always compared himself to a father of impressive physique himself, taking that measure-up attitude onto the football field.
“I’ve been a little guy since probably middle school.” Yet playing bigger, and harder, lets Gray thrive as a split end where typical targets are well over six feet tall. Cornerbacks who think they can muscle Gray around, realize their error quickly.
“Being outside receiver, I think just aggressiveness,” Gray said. “Take the ball and have a chip on my shoulder at all times.”
No chip should be necessary this spring. Gray tops the depth chart and stat sheet as ranking Bulldog receiver. In fact he’s easily on track for a top-ten yardage career in just three years. There’s no missing the connection he and Nick Fitzgerald have created too, going back to 2015 together in practices.
So when the Bulldogs assemble first week of March for the first round of practices, Gray has to transition from second man in the receiving order to top Dog.
But he’s up to the challenge. Remember, this is a guy who belied the image of juco players by first getting eligible for senior college in a year-and-half; then earned his Mississippi State diploma way ahead of schedule.
Receiving that bachelors of science degree from Dr. Mark Keenum last December… “Man, it felt good. It felt good! Not only do you want to come here and be the best, but get a degree? I think that holds more weight than an actual career in football.”
Besides, winning that diploma didn’t require any JUGS gun or operator. Not that the machine will be feeling lonely this spring when a Dog’s thoughts turn to the task he loves.
Spring practice opens March 2, with the full schedule—to be interrupted by spring break week—pending.