SANDERSVILLE -- AJ Gray wasn’t a product of the elite summer camp system.
Washington County’s do-everything quarterback and defensive back didn’t land on the recruiting radar through big-time football showcases and related activities. He didn’t play the networking game that many recruits play with hopes of getting big-name coaches to take an early bite.
Still, things worked out for Gray and his college prospects.
“Without mentioning any names, some of the who’s who of the SEC were all wanting to come up and talk to me before the Georgia Dome (championship) game,” Washington County head coach Joel Ingram said. “I just had to tell them, ‘Hey, where were you six or seven months ago?’ He’s locked. He is in stone with Georgia Tech, and they’re very proud to have him.”
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Gray, who ran for 2,358 yards, passed for 1,810 yards and accounted for 60 offensive touchdowns as a senior, gets to add two more awards to his lengthy resume this Christmas morning. He is The Telegraph All-Middle Georgia Football Player of the Year, as selected by The Telegraph’s sports staff, and he is also the Georgia Sports Writers Association all-classification player of the year, as selected by a statewide panel of writers.
“He makes plays when you’re not supposed to,” said Logan Hunt, Washington County’s top receiver. “He’s a quiet leader.”
PICKING UP THE STICK
So how did Gray, who committed to Georgia Tech before his senior season and led the Golden Hawks to the GHSA Class AAA title game, get to be so good?
One part of that answer: video games.
“I ran the spread,” Gray said of his experience playing the Madden and NCAA Football video game series. “I won a lot.”
He had a good teacher in his older brother, Marlo East.
A wide receiver at Troy who lettered for the Trojans in 2003, 2005 and 2006, East returned to Sandersville after his college career and is now Washington County’s assistant head coach and defensive coordinator.
“It’s a legend around here that his brother is the kingfish of video game players, and they always go at it,” Ingram said. “And (Gray) is probably the junior kingfish.”
They weren’t just wasting time, either. Some of the plays run in the video game became plays run live on the football field. They were plays run, as it turned out, that few real-life opponents could stop.
“Those video games today, my 10-year-old was playing one, and I’m sitting there looking at it, and I couldn’t even do the controllers. I just had to help him call plays,” Ingram said. “It’s legit.
“From growing up around that and understanding and doing it every day and seeing a computer-animated version of it, it’s almost like a simulator. That, and watching a lot of football, (Gray’s) just saturated with football knowledge.”
A ‘FOOTBALL-SAVVY’ ATHLETE
All of that video game experience helped Gray study the game. But his physical abilities helped Gray turn studies into action.
With Gray running the spread offense, Washington County set the state scoring record this season, racking up 737 points. The Golden Hawks didn’t finish a game with fewer than 30 points until the semifinals, had a stretch of seven games in which 50 or more points were scored and topped the 70-point mark on three occasions.
Gray fits into a line of dual-threat quarterbacks to rise in prominence in recent years, especially at the collegiate level. His play offensively resembles what Auburn has run in recent years, first with Cam Newton and then with Wilcox County product Nick Marshall.
“I liked him when he came through college,” Gray said of Newton.
Although he’s being recruited to Georgia Tech as a defensive back, there are hopes that he will see time at quarterback during his collegiate career.
Gray’s best offensive performance came in a 62-35 quarterfinal win over Pierce County. He rushed for 442 yards and scored eight touchdowns that night, a statement win that put him at the forefront of state award conversations.
A few days following that game, Gray received his first major statewide award, the Gatorade Georgia football player of the year.
“The thing that jumps out the most is his football IQ,” Ingram said. “There were so many things that we were able to do offensively and defensively, just because of how smart he is and how football-savvy he is, understanding both sides of the ball.
“Skill-set wise, if you ask me, he’s probably like a Nick Marshall or Marcus Mariota, the runner/thrower who can make plays with his legs but is still smart enough to take what the defense gives him.”
STOPPER IN THE MIDDLE
While Gray scored nearly at will for most of the season, he also had his share of big plays defensively.
Gray was at his best on defense when he played the role of center fielder in Washington County’s variable set. If opponents wanted to go deep, they had to contend with him.
A lot of those deep battles were won by Gray. He had 10 interceptions and eight break-ups to go along with 63 tackles. Four of the passes he picked off were returned for touchdowns.
“AJ’s a great player and a great person,” linebacker Will Coneway said. “He’s a quiet superstar. He’ll never talk about his accolades or anything like that. He’s down to earth.”
His fourth-quarter interception in the semifinals against Blessed Trinity all but clinched Washington County’s title game spot in the Georgia Dome. And he nearly had a diving pick in the fourth quarter of the championship contest against Calhoun that would have kept the score tied, but an official away from the ball ruled the pass an incompletion instead.
Plays like those are what could put Gray on the field at Georgia Tech sooner rather than later. Starting quarterback Justin Thomas has two years of eligibility remaining, while the Yellow Jackets will have a safety position come open in the fall through graduation.
“I don’t think I’m going to have to adjust hardly because they run basically the same stuff we run on defense,” Gray said. “But on offense, I’ll probably have to adjust a bit.”
Ingram said Gray is well-prepared to play at the collegiate level.
“The safety play, the way that we play, because you have to play so many spread offenses today, you’ve got to be able to excel in man coverage,” Ingram said. “And in man coverage, in order to cover the route runners and get people in the box for run support, you’ve got to have safeties that can cover and can come up in that box. Some safeties can roll up and be great in run support and not be great cover guys.
“I think the alluring thing about him is, he can line up in cover somebody in zero man coverage, but at the same time he can line up at linebacker depth and play the run.”
This has been a wildly successful fall for the Gray family.
AJ’s older sister, Allisha Gray, averages a team-high 17.8 points for the ninth-ranked North Carolina women’s basketball team, currently 11-1.
Their father, Allen, is the principal at Washington County, a school that is being transformed through the construction of new buildings. The main academic building is complete and in use, while construction equipment remains on campus to finish other tasks.
“We’re blessed,” AJ Gray said. “Very blessed.”
Like Allisha and his father, who coached basketball at Washington County before going into administration, AJ likes to spend time on the basketball court. His first high school action of the season came Monday in Washington County’s holiday tournament, scoring eight points in the Golden Hawks’ 59-48 win over Lowndes. He then scored a game-high 18 in a 52-44 win over Hawkinsville for the tournament title.
Unlike football, where a lot of his skills were developed close to home, Gray has taken part in travel basketball programs, just like his sister did when she played at Washington County.
For Allisha, that travel included a stint with the USA Basketball U18 national team.
“There was a lot of early sacrifice,” Allen Gray said. “Allisha, travel ball, AJ travel ball for basketball before football took off. It’s just kind of what we do. Some people go to the beach for vacation; we go to a gym. Some people go to Six Flags for vacation, we go to a camp. That’s just what we’ve always done.
“When they were little, a lot of times when I would coach, their mom would bring them over, and that would be our family thing. I’d be out there coaching, and they would be running around the side. That’s how they grew up.”
Yes, there was a little friendly competition between Allisha and AJ along the way.
“When she signed with North Carolina, as I was giving my little speech, I looked at him -- I was joking -- and I said, ‘OK, man, what’s you gonna do?’ ” Allen Gray said. “I said I hadn’t paid for school yet, talking about (Marlo and Allisha), and I jokingly said to him during her signing, ‘OK, I haven’t paid for school yet, what’s you gonna do?’ And he told me the other day that he never forgot that statement. I guess he took it as a little motivation.”
There’s one more Gray sibling coming up: Ashley, 11, who has some time yet until her high school days begin.
“Whether she dribbles a ball or dons a cheerleading uniform, there’s no pressure on her,” Allen Gray said. “We just want them to fit in where they’re comfortable.”
There is a lot of debate as to how AJ Gray’s collegiate career will proceed once he gets to Georgia Tech.
Gray wasn’t heavily recruited prior to his senior season, and the coaches who recruited Gray wanted him to focus on defense.
The knock? Gray ran Washington County’s offense out of the spread formation, taking snaps from out of the shotgun instead of under center.
Gray downplays that criticism, saying he can adjust to going under center if put in charge of running Georgia Tech’s triple-option.
“The last time I went up under center was in my eighth-grade year,” Gray said, to which Ingram interjected, “He can do it. He would have no problem adjusting to it.”
If Gray wants to take a run at the starting quarterback’s job, he’s joining a program known for being creative with athletes who want to try different things.
Head coach Paul Johnson found success this past season with wide receiver DeAndre Smelter, a Tattnall Square product who enrolled at Georgia Tech as a baseball player but was welcomed into the football program when injuries derailed his career on the diamond. Smelter caught 35 passes for 715 yards and seven touchdowns before tearing his ACL in the Nov. 29 win over Georgia.
It was the type of fit Gray and Ingram were looking for.
“The coaches said they’ve had the conversations back and forth,” Ingram said. “It’s kind of funny; the defensive coaches said they found him first, so they want to keep him on defense. But they said the head man runs the offense, so they’re living in fear that he may pull the rug from under them and play him on offense.
“Who knows. He may play both.”