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Gary Gray quietly makes plays

Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, November 17, 2011

When talking about himself, the humility of fifth-year senior Gary Gray shines through despite his quiet mood. Modest and self-effacing, Gray takes the blame for his own mistakes, while attributing his accomplishments to the support of other players and the instruction from his coaches. But behind the face of the South Carolina native lies a fierce competitor.

“Sometimes I am pretty quiet and laid-back but I have a mean streak to me,” Gray said with a meek grin. “I just want to be remembered as a great teammate who led by example. Just as someone who made his plays and went out there with everything, not saying much but just making plays.”

Irish cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks echoed Gray’s sentiment, praising his defensive back’s humility, poise and drive to be lead by example.

“My memory of Gary will be as a very quiet, very humble guy who has a little dog inside of him. He is a pitbull and he plays like that,” Cooks said. “But he really is a tremendous leader more so by what he does rather than what he says. I appreciate guys like that and he is one of the most coachable guys that I have ever coached.”

But the fifth-year corner’s battle-tested poise was surely tested Sept. 10 against Michigan, when Michigan junior quarterback Denard Robinson caught Gray out of position a number of times throughout the game.

The tipping point came with eight seconds left in the game, with Notre Dame up by three. Robinson hung in the pocket before throwing a 16-yard fade to redshirt junior receiver Roy Roundtree, who beat Gray down the sideline and out-jumped him for the ball. The worst part: Roundtree’s only catch of the game — the game-winning touchdown — came with two seconds remaining. Gray was even flagged for pass interference on the play as the Wolverines knocked off the Irish with a heartbreaking 35-31 win.

The firestorm of vilification had only just begun, as Gray’s performance drew massive criticism questioning the cornerback’s toughness and overall ability. Cooks said all of the criticism was completely unwarranted.

“[The Boston College game] is going on our 20th game together. And in 19 of those games, Gary has been as good as any corner in the country,” Cooks said. “He had one bad game against Michigan and now everyone thinks he is a bad player. That is not the case and I don’t think he ever lost his confidence. He has moved on and he is going to make the most of his last couple of weeks.

“He has tunnel vision, which means he has the ability to tune things out that he doesn’t need to be a part of and tune in to things that are important to him. He has definitely taken that approach and he has played well.”

Gray said the criticism affected him only until the next day, crediting Cooks’ help to get him to stay focused on the remainder of the season.

“It affected me at that point, but we have a 24-hour rule and I couldn’t let it affect me for the rest of the season because we had pretty good competition throughout. I couldn’t let that point lose me for the rest of the season,” Gray said. “Coach Cooks has helped me a lot as a person and as a player. He helped me get through it and he is a great teacher and is always on me to practice harder or focus on my keys.”

Despite the big setback in the Big House, Gray is tied for the team lead in interceptions with two and ranks fourth in tackles with 49. In his biggest games, the former U.S. Army High School All-American plays his best, averaging more than seven tackles per game against ranked teams, while averaging just under four against unranked teams.

With more than 150 tackles in his collegiate career, Gray has embraced his role as an aggressive tackling specialist within a veteran secondary. But what Gray said he will remember most is the time spent in the locker room with his teammates, especially fifth-year safety Harrison Smith.

“I remember Harrison was playing linebacker when we first got here and he turned into a safety and a demonstrative leader on our defense making all of the calls and putting people in the right place,” Gray said. “Most of the guys that I came up with in my class are already gone but Harrison is one of those guys that came in with me. I’ll miss him and the memories that I have had and the bonds I have made with all my old teammates and the guys that are here right now.

“The freshmen and young guys crack me up and sometimes remind me of myself.”

Gray’s role as a leader trickles down to those younger defensive backs as well, and not just for comic relief. When sophomore cornerback Lo Wood — who had seen sparse playing time before Saturday’s game against Maryland — returned an interception for a touchdown against the Terrapins, Gray was the first one in the end zone to congratulate his likely successor. But now, all Gray wants to do is score a touchdown for himself.

“I really need to score before I leave here,” he said. “[Former linebacker] Brian Smith won’t let me live it down because he has two touchdowns. But I still have a few more games to get it done.”

Gray’s chance came against No. 15 Michigan State on Sept. 17 in a 31-13 win over the Spartans. With just under four minutes to play and the Spartans threatening at the goal line, Michigan State senior quarterback threw a pass to one of his receivers, which was then picked off by senior cornerback Robert Blanton and taken 82 yards, deep into Spartan territory. But Gray, who was in man-to-man coverage on the intended receiver, tipped the pass and was set to intercept the pass before Blanton stole the show.

“He actually took that one away from me. That was my man,” Gray said jokingly. “He wasn’t even supposed to come over that way, that was supposed to be my pick but he got it and did a great job. He probably got farther than I would have with it anyways.”

Beyond his goal to tally a touchdown before season’s end, the corner’s unwavering focus remains on one goal: beating Boston College on Senior Day.

“The only thing that is on my mind is to go out and beat BC,” Gray said. “I remember a couple of years ago [in 2008] when we lost to Syracuse on Senior Day I was just heartbroken for those seniors and I don’t want that to happen to this group.

“As far as all the emotions that come with Senior Day, I can focus on that after the game looking at the big picture. The fact that it is [the last home game] is in the back of your head but we just have to focus on going out and beating BC. That is what everyone is thinking. We have to still prepare the same way. Our goal is to beat BC and the more wins we get the better.”

With his five-year stay in South Bend coming to a close, Gray will take his last run out of the tunnel, but still equipped with his “tunnel vision” that has brought him to this point.

“I’m sure it’ll be emotional coming out on the field for the last time but we can’t get too emotional because we still have a game to play.”