Maleik Gray does not yet know at what college he will attend, however, he does have a trio of leaders in the clubhouse.
One of those three schools is roughly 180 miles east of the Volunteer State’s top-rated junior defender as Tennessee has been after Gray for years.
“Honestly, they’ve been here since Day 1 and I feel like I have a great relationship with the coaches and some of the players,” Gray told InsideTennessee. “I love the atmosphere there and the fans.”
Vanderbilt offered the Scout 100 talent as an eighth grader. The Tennessee offer came following Gray’s freshman season at LaVergne (Tenn.) High School.
Butch Jones is the leader of the program on Rocky Top and has taken it upon himself to build a relationship with Gray.
“He’s a great guy,” the Scout four-star prospect said of Jones. “He seems determined to help UT win a national championship. I just like his attitude. He wants to win and keep all the great players home. I respect that.”
The Tennessee coaches as a whole have been positive in trying to reel in the Class of 2017 standout.
“They all just have great attitudes. They want what’s best for us to help us become better football players.”
One staffer charged with helping get the Scout four-star safety prospect to call Knoxville his next home is Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen.
“He’s a pretty cool guy,” Gray said of the fourth-year Vols assistant. “He’s really energetic, he’s cool to talk to, great coach.”
Tennessee introduced Bob Shoop as its new defensive on Jan. 12. He’s been at work building a relationship with the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder.
“Honestly, I didn’t know Bob Shoop when he was at Vanderbilt,” Gray said. “I didn’t know him then. I feel like he’s a great guy. He could possibly help UT’s defense. But, I mean we have a great relationship, too. We just haven’t gotten to bond as much. He came to visit me once and we talked but not much.”
Florida State and Southern California are in that top 3 with Tennessee. Whomever is in fourth place isn’t necessarily out of the hunt.
“I’m still open-minded to every school,” Gray said.
“Honestly, I just love all of the atmospheres. It just amazes you. It’s just so different from a lot of colleges. I haven’t been to a lot but the ones that I’ve been to, those schools happen to be the ones to catch my attention.”
It’s a toss-up to say which staff is wearing the blue collar in its pursuit of the Scout No. 4 safety in the nation.
“Just about everybody is recruiting me really hard,” said Gray, who mentioned Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, Miami (Fla.), Ole Miss and USC alongside Tennessee as some of the schools hard after him.
The mid-state talent expects to play outside linebacker or safety on the next level. Gray took on roles of kick returner, outside linebacker, punt returner and wide receiver for the Wolverines last fall. He doesn’t have much of a dog in the fight for his collegiate positional home.
“Honestly, wherever I can help the team at whichever school I go to,” Gray said.
“I just like playing at the outside linebacker position because that’s where I feel like I can get physical.”
The South’s No. 3-rated safety plans to wait until National Signing Day to make a declaration.
Gray’s basketball career ended Tuesday as LaVergne lost to Blackman 53-47 in a TSSAA Class AAA region semifinal. He does not plan to play hoops next season.
With the hardwood career in the rear-view mirror, it’s full steam ahead for Gray in building his body and to get deeper into his recruitment. Expectations are for him and three-star wide receiver and teammate Princeton Fant to be in Knoxville on Saturday.