Paul Johnson is an offensive-minded coach not prone to being effusive. His triple-option system is what defines him – as does his generally brusque demeanor. So when the Georgia Tech head coach starts spitting roses about a defensive player who generally works the furthest away from the line of scrimmage, well, you take notice.
“A.J. Gray probably had as good a spring as anybody on our football team,” Johnson told the full contingent of media that showed up in Charlotte for the annual Atlantic Coast Conference football kickoff. “I think he’s got the opportunity to be one of the all-time great players at Georgia Tech.”
He said all-time greats at Georgia Tech, a list that would include the likes of Pat Swilling, Keith Brooking, Eddie Lee Ivery, Calvin Johnson, Marco Coleman and Demaryius Thomas. All this praise for a sophomore safety from Washington County who played in 10 games as a freshman backup who admittedly “didn’t quite know what I was doing out there.”
Johnson expanded on his assessment of Gray when the Yellow Jackets opened preseason camp with the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder already entrenched as the starting free safety.
“A.J.’s a really well-rounded kid,” Johnson said. “He’s got his feet on the ground. He’s got really good athletic ability. He’s got good football awareness and sense. He had to play last year as a freshman before he was ready and he was out there and at times he would get lost but he still made some plays. He had a couple interceptions and seemed to find his way around the ball. This spring he was almost impossible to block. I mean, you’d like to say you teach that but I think some of that is just innate ability that you just have.”
Fair enough, but all-time great?
“Certainly nobody is gonna crown him as all-pro now in his sophomore year of college,” Johnson said. “But I think if he continues to progress and work – which he will because he’s that type of person – then I think he could be really good.”
It’s not just his head coach saying these things about Gray. Asked point blank who would be the breakout star on the 2016 team, defensive back Lawrence Austin didn’t hesitate.
“I think A.J. Gray is going to have a big year,” Austin said. “A.J. is just a natural baller. He finds the ball or the ball finds him. He might do something wrong but still catch an interception or knock the ball out. He does have potential to be one of the greats.”
Senior lineman Patrick Gamble quickly concurred.
“I would say the same thing,” Gamble said of Gray. “Every time I see him he’s making plays on the ball. Every time. No matter where’s he’s at he’s making plays on the ball whether it’s a fumble or interception. He’s just always around the ball and that’s one thing we need.”
How does quarterback Justin Thomas feel about the guy who picks him off in practice?
“Just watching him play last season I think he can be a big contributor,” Thomas said. “Especially being in the system for a year, he’s not just running around looking for the ball. He’s going to know his assignments and I think he’ll put himself in a lot better position and I think he’ll be a great player.”
You won’t hear anything like that coming out of the shy Gray’s mouth. He’s not in the mold of the trash-talking defensive backs that proliferate football. High praise from his coaches and teammates only fuels him to work harder.
“It means a lot to me and just makes me more humble to get better every day,” he said. “Get better on the little things like the details.”
Gray admits the details were largely lost on him a year ago. Even a principal’s son from Sandersville, Ga., can get overwhelmed by the volume of things he had to learn immediately playing football and taking classes at Georgia Tech. It was a lot to process, and mostly Gray survived on instinct that made him the prep player of the year as a senior.
“I was just going off athleticism,” Gray said. “But now I know the plays and know where to line up and it just makes me play faster.”
His coaches have noticed the maturation.
“I think last year it was fast for him – it was just ‘See ball, try and hit ball; see receiver, try and cover receiver,’” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “Whereas now he’s trying to play within the framework of what we’re doing.”
Gray’s teammates already marveled at what he could do at half speed. In 10 games last year – he missed two after an injury late against Florida State – Gray posted 21 tackles plus an interception and fumble recovery.
“It’s just God’s gift,” Austin said of Gray’s innate football instinct. “If I mess up on a play I’ll be nowhere near the ball. If A.J. messes up, he’ll catch an interception. I’ve never seen anything like it. When he first came in as a freshman he’d call the wrong play and run the wrong way but he would catch an interception. You can’t get mad at him. Now coming into his second year and he’s learning more of the defense, so he’s been in the right position and also making plays on the ball. He’s going to be a great player for us this year.”
All four starters are gone from Georgia Tech’s secondary after the graduations of safeties Jamal Golden and Demond Smith and cornerbacks D.J. White and Chris Milton. It will be up to Gray to play “quarterback” again, recognizing opposing offensive formations and instructing his teammates where to line up.
“Major difference,” said Austin. “He’s not only doing what he’s supposed to do but he’s telling the corner what he’s supposed to do and telling the outside linebacker what he’s supposed to do.”
While a battered offense was the biggest reason for Georgia Tech’s 3-9 record last year, the defense didn’t make the necessary contributions to turn things around. After the Jackets scored 137 points off 29 turnovers in 2014, Georgia Tech only mustered 17 takeaways leading to 78 points last season. The primary focus is on changing those numbers this season.
Gray is being counted on to be a big part of that. Considering he intercepted 10 passes his senior season at Washington County and returned four for touchdowns, it’s a role he’s ready to fill.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity,” Gray said. “We should get a lot of turnovers because we’re really focused on that. I feel like if we’re on the same page, everybody can be an outstanding player.”
Coming from a Washington County team that reached consecutive state championship games to a program coming off an 11th win at the Orange Bowl, Gray wasn’t accustomed to the struggles the Yellow Jackets endured last season. He refuses to dwell on it.
“I wouldn’t talk about last year because that’s over with and done and we can’t do anything about it,” he said. “All I’m doing is focusing on this year. All this (outside negativity) is just building us and making us more motivated. Where’s not listening to none of that. I think everybody is working together. If we communicate like we’re doing we’ll be real good.”
If Gray keeps progressing like he has in one year, “real good” has a chance to develop into “all-time great.”
“I think you’ll be excited to watch him play this fall,” Johnson said.