The opportunity was there, and Mike Gray wanted to make sure he was the one to take it.
With two starting spots at wide receiver open heading into the season after the loss to graduation of Juwan Green and Jerrah Reeves — who combined for more than 60% of UAlbany football’s receiving yards in 2019 — earning playing time on the outside for the spring season was set to be a free-for-all.
Gray’s way to stand out from the crowd? Good, old-fashioned elbow grease.
“There’s a lot of competition at the wide receiver position,” Gray said Wednesday during a teleconference with reporters. “So, I know that if I’m not working, someone else is.”
Lightly recruited out of high school in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Gray arrived at UAlbany and took a redshirt year in 2019. Then, the novel coronavirus pandemic disrupted the Great Danes’ offseason and eventually forced the fall season to be postponed until the spring.
Gray didn’t take the extended break sitting down.
“I invested a lot into my body,” he said. “I was doing a lot of recovery, a lot of stretching, rolling out, yoga, stuff like that, to make sure I would stay healthy.”
UAlbany head coach Greg Gattuso said Gray was one of the players who stood out the most for their work ethic when the team was apart, constantly posting workout videos throughout the extended break.
When the Great Danes opened preseason camp last month, the offensive coaching staff immediately penciled Gray in as one of the starters at wide receiver.
“He didn’t sit at home and rest on his laurels, thinking something was going to be given to him,” Gattuso said. “He came in and took the job. That’s what I love about him.”
While Gattuso said he needed a little convincing at the start of camp that Gray was ready to take over a starting role, the 6-foot-0, 195-pound freshman quickly laid any doubts to rest.
After a successful camp — Gray was the only Great Danes receiver not to deal with any preseason injury issues — he got the start in last Friday’s season opener against New Hampshire and quickly made an impact.
Gray’s first catch? A tough third-down grab in traffic to convert for a first down and keep UAlbany’s first drive alive.
By the end of that drive, he’d caught four passes for 43 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown pass.
Gray ended the night with seven catches for 74 yards in UAlbany’s 24-20 win, a performance that earned him CAA Rookie of the Week honors.
“It felt great to get that first performance under my belt,” Gray said. “I feel like I’ll be more comfortable taking the field as we go forward.”
Gray played five varsity sports as a senior at West Chester East High School — in addition to football, he also competed in basketball, lacrosse, ice hockey and track — but didn’t have many offers to play high-level college football.
However, Gattuso said that UAlbany associate head coach Joe Davis saw in Gray exactly the type of player that the Great Danes want in their program, and he was brought in as a walk-on still not knowing if he’d ultimately end up as a receiver or a defensive back.
“We thought he was under-recruited,” Gattuso said. “Coach Davis did a great job recruiting him. Coach Davis understands the type of player we want on our football team, and we felt that Mike kind of fit that bill.”
That faith carried over as Gray worked his way into the starting lineup.
“Is he the fastest guy? Not necessarily,” Gattuso said. “But, he can get open. He showed that. He earned his starting job, fair and square. He earned it early in camp.”
Much of Gray’s inspiration came from seeing the success Green and Reeves had in 2019, when they combined for nearly 2,400 receiving yards and Green earned his way into the NFL with a spot on the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad.
“That’s just another motivation to never give up,” Gray said, “and that the hard work’s going to pay off.”
Gattuso is optimistic that Gray can take the splash he made in his debut and use that as a springboard for even greater accomplishments.
“His success,” Gattuso said, “is based on hard work, effort and toughness.
“That, usually, is a lasting success.”