John Denton's Knights Insider: Voice of Reason

Oct. 12, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Marshall had just returned a fumble for a touchdown last Saturday night, drawing the Thundering Herd within 16-6 of UCF and infuriating head coach George O'Leary.

But what the veteran coach heard and witnessed next on the sidelines gave him encouragement that UCF would right the ship and ultimately capture its first Conference USA victory of the season. O'Leary always preaches that it's most important how his team responds to adversity, and the display of emotion from redshirt defensive tackle Victor Gray made him smile when he usually would have been steaming with anger.

Gray could have been infuriated that the UCF offense just cost the team a shutout that the defense had worked all night to preserve. Instead, as the offense trudged off the field following the turnover, the bright, well-spoken Gray met the group near the sidelines, offered encouragement and mildly chided them for not holding up their end of the fight.

``It was more, `Come on you guys, let's go.' It was Victor Gray being a leader. He was just telling guys that they had to carry their weight and it wasn't negative at all,'' O'Leary remembered. ``There's nothing better than peer pressure sometimes. They get tired of hearing it from the coaches and it's better when a kid tells them that they're all in this together and have to carry your weight. It was good because it wasn't done at all in a `you versus us' type of way at all.''

Gray, a redshirt sophomore from Orlando, has quietly evolved into one of the unquestioned leaders on a UCF defense that is among the nation's leaders in several important categories. Gray not only talks the talk, but backs it up on the field where he is fourth on the team in tackles (16 total stops), second in tackles for loss (3.5) and first in quarterback hurries (five). Quite impressive numbers, indeed, for a defensive tackle who spent his formative football years playing end and primarily rushing the passer.

UCF (3-2 overall and 1-0 in C-USA play) will need more solid play from Gray on Saturday when it faces SMU (4-1 and 2-0) in a game that could serve as a preview of the C-USA title game in December. The Knights and Mustangs played in the title game late last season, a game UCF won 17-7 behind a dominant defensive effort.

``It will be a tough challenge because they play sound and disciplined football. We have a good scheme coming into the game, and we'll be ready for them,'' Gray said.

Gray knows a thing or two about challenges, switching positions from defensive end to tackle once he got to UCF for the betterment of the team. The 6-foot-4 former basketball player went from 220 pounds to 265 pounds by eating as many as seven meals a day, snacking on smaller energy bars and fruit in class and waking in the middle of the night to down protein shakes. That added weight has helped him hold his position inside for UCF's defense, and he's also been able to retain his quickness as evidenced by the five quarterback hurries. He was so quick off the ball last week against Marshall that a Herd offensive lineman was forced to hold him in the end zone, resulting in a safety and two points for UCF.

``I am kind of surprised how well I've done. I thought with my weight that I'd get to that position and my weight would drop. But I've kept my weight up and hopefully I can stay strong and keep it going,'' Gray said. ``It's different facing so many double teams after being out in space at end and getting the single blocks. Now, I have more responsibility and my reaction time has to be that much quicker playing inside. But I just look at it as a good challenge.''

UCF senior defensive end Darius Nall said he saw this type of dominance coming from Gray after the way the defensive tackle worked in the offseason on his explosiveness and strength. His improvement has allowed UCF to be ranked first in the nation in pass defense (100.2 yards a game), second in total defense (177.6 yards per game), second in points allowed per game (10 ppg.) and eighth in run defense (77.4 ypg.).

``I knew he was going to have a good year based on how hard he worked this summer to improve his strength,'' Nall said of Gray. ``The guy is like a whole different player this season and he just keeps showing improvement each and every week. He does his job, helps other people out and he's been that leader that we need.''

Leadership comes naturally to Gray, whom O'Leary calls ``one of the brightest kids on the team.'' A political science major and a former national award winner in mathematics, Gray denounces the use of Facebook and Twitter because, as he says, ``I prefer to live in reality and have real friends.'' And he isn't afraid to speak up to those teammates when they are slacking off on the task at hand.

``I feel like you can't lead unless you are leading by example as well. I won't get out there and cuss a guy out, but I will get after him and correct him,'' Gray said. ``Part of being a good teammate is encouraging them to do better and doing what you're supposed to do. You don't applaud them for just doing the job; you applaud them for doing it above and beyond.''

O'Leary, obviously smiling at hearing one of his players applying peer pressure and positive reinforcement, couldn't have said it any better himself.

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