Gray is one tough Aggie
One would be hard-pressed to second-guess Daniel Gray’s toughness on the football field.
The Utah State cornerback certainly proved how rugged he was after being carted off the field on stretcher after blowing up a USC pass play for minus-6 yards in the first quarter on Sept. 10 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Players from both teams took a knee on the sidelines while Gray was tended to for a lengthy period of time.
Gray, who suffered a neck/head injury, received a hearty ovation after giving the crowd the thumbs-up sign while getting taken off the field.
That scary couple of moments in Southern California didn’t deter the senior, though. In fact, Gray was able to return to practice midway through the following week and hasn’t missed a single game during the 2016 campaign.
“One of the things that we pride ourselves on in our room is really developing that edge of being tough football players on the field,” USU cornerbacks coach Julius Brown said. “You know, that was a kid that went down making a play … and if you go full speed sometimes an injury’s going to happen, but he bounced back. He was tough and able to come back and help us, and I think it just shows how far mentally we’ve come as a group since the spring.
“We’ll just keep instilling toughness and that’s what we want to be, and that’s what we want to be known for is (developing) hard-nosed football players.”
Gray admitted he initially thought his injury against the Trojans “was pretty serious,” but said “once I got off the field, I was fine.” Nevertheless, No. 7 didn’t expect to be on Merlin Olsen Field when the Aggies hosted Arkansas State the following Friday.
“I didn’t think I was going to play that next week, but when it’s your senior year, you don’t have that many (games) left,” Gray said. “Sometimes we’ve got to fight through a little pain and be ready to play.”
Gray not only played against ASU, he immediately made an impact as he deftly broke up a pass barely after entering the game midway through the first quarter. The native of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has been an impact player for the Aggies all season long.
After spending his first two seasons in Logan as a part-time starter — No. 7 started a combined nine games as a sophomore and junior — Gray has been in the starting lineup all but two times as a senior. Gray is currently tied with linebacker Alex Huerta as USU’s fifth-leading tackler with 45, which is more than any defensive back on the team besides safety Dallin Leavitt.
“It felt good to finally get a whole season in, in starting, and I’ve felt like this was my best season I’ve played,” said Gray, who is on track to graduate next month with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in criminal justice. “I prepared very hard for this season. It didn’t go as I wanted it to team wise, but they’ve always got next year. The Aggies will be back, we’ll protect the culture (of winning).”
Indeed, the son of Monica Nesbitt has been a solid performer for the Aggies this season. In fact, Gray and Jalen Davis form arguably one of the top cornerback tandems in the Mountain West.
Gray, who is tied for second on the squad with four passes broken up, made quite possibly USU’s best defensive play of the season against a vaunted Wyoming offense on Nov. 5 in Laramie. Despite giving up more than half a foot to all-conference candidate Jake Maulhardt, Gray was able to outleap the 6-foot-6 wide receiver for an interception in the third quarter.
It was the USU’s first defensive takeaway in six MW games, and it was easily the most spectacular of the team’s five INTs this season. The Aggies took over at midfield and proceeded to score their third straight touchdown, which pared a 28-point halftime deficit to 35-28.
“That was big,” Gray said. “I felt like that was a key moment in the game, a lot of momentum I felt like we gained. We went down and scored a touchdown right after, so it was pretty big. It was my first college career interception. … I feel like it was a terrific play, but all praise goes to coach Juice (Julius Brown). He work on that technique, getting your eyes around, finding the ball and attacking it at the highest point, and I came down with it.”
Gray also broke up a third-and-goal pass in the end zone vs. Wyoming early in the fourth quarter. It was arguably USU’s second-best defensive play of the contest, and the Cowboys settled for a field goal.
The ability to make those kinds of plays is what garnered Gray a lot of recruiting attention as a prep player at Boyd Anderson High School — that and his speed. Gray ran a blistering 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds at the Under Armour All-American Camp in 2012.
“He’s fast,” Brown said of Gray. “You know, he’s a fast guy and so he’s able to make up some ground on a lot of wide receivers just with his God-given ability. And I think he studies the game and he works at his (craft). In order to be a great defensive back in the country, you have to study and you have to work, and he studies his craft and he continues to get better and better.”
Gray was recruited by Power 5 Conference programs Tennessee, Florida State, Miami, West Virginia and Texas Tech, and accepted a scholarship offer to Tennessee. The 5-10, 185-pounder was ranked as the 105th best prep DB in the country following his senior season.
As a true freshman for the Volunteers, Gray played in eight games and made six tackles. Three of those tackles were recorded against Troy, which was Gray’s lone start of the 2012 campaign.
The 2014 Academic All-Mountain West selection elected to leave Knoxville following the season, though.
“It wasn’t (a good fit) at the time,” Gray said. “Everything happens for a reason and I’m glad I ended up here.”
Several athletes from the Sunshine State have competed for the Aggies over the past five-plus seasons, and that connection is how Gray ended up in Cache Valley. No. 7 even attended the same high school as former USU wideout Travis Reynolds. The two played little league football together.
Gray redshirted the 2013 season at USU and started against his former team in the 2014 season-opener for both squads. As a sophomore and junior, Gray tallied 42 tackles, six PBUs and forced a fumble.
Saturday night’s contest against BYU in Provo will be the last time Gray and 24 of his teammates suit up for Utah State. Gray was in the starting lineup when the Aggies upset the Cougars two years ago at LaVell Edwards Stadium, and No. 7 would love nothing more than to make it two straight USU victories in Utah County.
“I’m very excited,” Gray said. “Last time I went down there and played in Provo, the receivers kind of got the best of me. … I’m a senior now, way more mature and ready to get after their receivers. I think they’re pretty good, but we’re pretty good. We’re ranked in the top 15 (nationally) in pass defense and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. We play good in the back end, so it will be a good challenge.”
Brown will certainly miss not having Gray around next fall. USU’s first-year cornerbacks coach raved about Gray’s sense of humor.
“I stay on him pretty hard and I can ride him tough, but at the same time he keeps a smile on his face and he comes out there to work,” Brown said. “You know, he’s always talking to the guys, keeping the guys in a good mood, keeping the guys ready to go for practice., and that’s really encouraging as a coach whenever you have a guy that you probably stay on the hardest out of anybody in that room, and he’s able to continue to have a smile and challenge the other guys to do better.”
Following his final game as an Aggie, Gray will turn his attention to working out and having “a monster Pro Day.” Like many of his teammates, the senior has aspirations of playing at the next level.
Eventually, Gray plans on pursuing a career in criminal justice, possibly as a policeman, as long as it doesn’t involve being stuck behind a desk.
In his free time, Gray enjoys hiking in Logan Canyon — his favorite destination is the Wind Caves — and drawing.
“I’ll just grab a sheet of paper and just start drawing anything my mind feels like drawing,” he said.