John Denton's Knights Insider: Gray Turning the D-Line Into an Intimidating Force

Oct. 21, 2010

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Now, this is the true definition of a difference-maker.

UCF's defensive tackle position was supposed to be a position of weakness this season what with the loss of NFL second-round pick Torell Troup and the glaring inexperience of the players expected to fill in at those spots along the line.

But as it turns out, undersized freshman Victor Gray has been one of the Knights' biggest surprises, turning the defensive tackle position from one filled with question marks to one with a resounding exclamation point now.

Gray, a freshman from Orlando, has been one of the anchors on UCF's nationally rated defense, ranking ninth on the team in tackles (16) and third in tackles for loss (5.0). He's also used his remarkable athleticism and basketball background to bat down another four passes and generally cause fits for offensive linemen.

``I take pride in what we've done because everybody wanted to talk about (the drop-off) and me being undersized with weight, but it's just about playing football,'' Gray said confidently. ``I feel like we've done a pretty good job of that at defensive tackle so far.''

Filling the holes at defensive tackle with Gray, senior Wes Tunuufi Sauvao and true freshman E.J. Dunston, UCF's defense hasn't missed a beat this season. Heading into Saturday's homecoming game at Bright House Networks Stadium against Rice (2-5, 1-2), UCF (4-2, 2-0) ranks in the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense and passing defense.

That kind of efficiency has allowed the Knights to score twice as many points as their foes this season (173-83) and once again become the favorites to win Conference USA's East Division.

That Dunston has been this good this quickly has been surprising to most considering that he is a converted defensive end having to play tackle and in most games he is giving away massive amounts of weight. He is a bulked up 263 pounds, having gotten to that weight only after eating as many as five meals a day and often snacking on sandwiches and shakes in class to keep his weight up.

Here's what Gray has been stacked against in most games. Against NC State, he had to face Zach Allen, who is 6-foot-3 and 314 pounds. And against massive Kansas State senior guard Kenneth Mayfield (6-4, 338 pounds), Gray was giving away a staggering 75 pounds. But against the Wolfpack, he had five tackles, two stops for losses and two batted-down passes. And against K-State, he had another five tackles, one stop for a loss and two pass break-ups.

``I haven't really surprised myself at all; But I am really happy with the productivity that I'm giving and I'm always looking to improve and get better,'' Gray said. ``I don't look at it as me trying to survive in there; I'm out there trying to dominate my opponent on every play. No matter what size I am or what size he is, it really doesn't matter to me.''

UCF head coach George O'Leary has always been a stickler for tough, physical defensive line play and he was somewhat leery about starting the season with two freshmen at defensive tackles. In his 45 years of coaching, O'Leary had never had two freshmen start the season opener at defensive tackle, but that was the case when Gray and Dunston got the nod against South Dakota. And with the help of Tunuufi Sauvao and senior ends Bruce Miller and David Williams, the young, undersized interior of the Knights defense has been able to thrive.

``With our defensive line they're not as stout as we've been in years, but they might be the fastest group we've had there in a long time,'' O'Leary raved.

Tunuufi Sauvao, one of UCF's biggest vocal leaders, said he isn't one bit shocked at how well Gray has performed because of what he pours into every practice, film study and game. Gray boosted his weight from 225 pounds to 263 pounds during his redshirt season and picked up the differences between end and tackle in spring practice. And now he's a leader along the line, Tunuufi Sauvao said.

``I'm very impressed with him. Victor Gray is just one of those players who wants to play, wants to practice, wants to be in the film study and wants to get better all the time,'' Tunuffi Sauvao said. ``He took it all upon himself and understood that he was a young player, and he's told me so many times that he just wants to do his part to help this defense be as good as it could be.''

The biggest struggle of all, Gray said, is trying to maintain his weight while sweating every day in practice, dealing with the rigors in school and then taking a pounding from players much bigger than him in games. Coaches and athletic trainers closely monitor his weight after each practice, insisting that he continue to eat several meals a day and continue a weight-lifting program.

Gray eventually hopes to get up to 275 pounds next season to give himself more of a base against bigger linemen, but for now he's just focused on maintaining what he has while attacking foes with his quickness and smarts.

``They want my weight up, so I'm constantly eating trying to maintain my weight. Sometimes it's hard when you have classes and papers to work on and you might miss a meal, but they get onto me when my weight drops,'' he said. ``I take meals to class. Sometimes when I don't have time I'll make a sandwich and then take it to class with me and eat it there. I'm trying to keep it (around 260 pounds) during the season and then hopefully go up in the offseason and be at a higher weight next season. I'd like to be at maybe 275 - as long as I can still move at that weight.''

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John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.