By JOEL COLEMAN
Donald Gray can look back now and laugh.
Last year at this time, Gray was a wide-eyed newcomer at Mississippi State. Following a standout season at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in 2014, Gray came to his first training camp as a Bulldog in 2015 and was overwhelmed. Between meetings, practices and workouts, Gray’s head was spinning.
That was then. This is now.
“I’m a little more mature,” Gray said. “I pretty much know what (wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales) expects. Whether it’s leadership or the plays, I’m more comfortable.
“I feel confident in everything we’re doing. I’ve studied some with (Gonzales). I’ve talked to (fellow wide receiver) Fred Ross a little bit. I’m just more confident.”
A confident Gray is a dangerous Gray. Even in his unpolished state last season, Gray found a way to make a big-time splash in his first season in Starkville. He played in all 13 games. He caught 21 passes for 386 yards and two touchdowns. He averaged a team-best 18.4 yards per reception.
Even more impressive than Gray’s production was how he went about it. Gray has made the highlight-reel catch a habit. Throw the ball in his vicinity and more often than not, the 5-foot-10, 204-pounder is going to haul it in.
Gray’s skills even make Ross, the Southeastern Conference’s leader in receptions per game a season ago, a little jealous.
“He uses his hands on every catch,” Ross said of Gray. “He has some of the best hands I’ve ever seen. He’s like (New York Giants wide receiver) Odell (Beckham, Jr.). He’s always making one-handed catches at practice. He’s just amazing.”
Not too long ago, Gray was more concerned about about catching some sleep than grabbing passes. Last August, Gray admitted he was exhausted trying to adapt to life at MSU. It, at times, seemed overwhelming.
Like a deep ball that looks just out of reach though, Gray did what he does best – he adapted and caught on. Now, he, along with Ross, are the leaders of the MSU receiving corps.
“He knows everything he needs to know now,” Gonzales said of Gray. “A year ago, that wasn’t the case at all. He was like a freshman just swimming. Now, he’s stepped up. In meetings, he’s holding young guys accountable. That’s what you want out of somebody in his position.”
Now that Gray is fully settled in, Gonzales is putting more on Gray’s plate.
“The great thing about the guys in that upper tier at practice, they can really move around to different positions,” Gonzales said. “(Sunday) I put Donald at a different position and said, ‘Hey, you practice there just in case.’ A year ago, I would’ve never been able to tell him to go from X over to Z. He’d have been swimming. Just the fact that he understands the concepts and why we’re doing it, that makes him so much more confident and comfortable.”
With comfort all over the field, it appears Gray will have plenty of chances to make his awe-inspiring catches in 2016. It’s a trait his coaches credit to his strong grip.
Recently, Gray and his teammates tested their grip strength with an exercise that called for the players to repeatedly squeeze and pick up around 180 pounds of weight.
“We had to squeeze it, pick it up, then reset and get your grip back and do it again,” Gray said.
Gray performed 21 reps in the challenge. No one else on the team did more than 10.
Ironically, Gray’s strong hands will now help him fill the big shoes left behind by former wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson.
“He’s 6-foot-5 and I’m small, so I’ve got a lot to prove,” Gray said of replacing Wilson’s production.
Gray, along with Ross, will likely be MSU’s starting outside receivers for State’s season opener against South Alabama on Sept. 3.
It’s a responsibility that Gray might not could’ve handled only 365 days ago.
That Donald Gray is long gone though. This is the receiver on the cusp of living up to the high expectations placed on him when he first signed with the Bulldogs.
Even though he has now risen closer to the top of the depth chart, Gray says he’s not done making himself better.
“I work as if I’m the number five (receiver),” Gray said. “I always just keep my head down and work.”