Georgia Tech

Gray steps up with huge game for Georgia Tech defense

Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson and North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora, right, shake hands after the host Yellow Jackets beat the Tar Heels on Saturday.
Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson and North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora, right, shake hands after the host Yellow Jackets beat the Tar Heels on Saturday. TNS

A.J. Gray may be on the cusp of becoming an elite player in the ACC. The junior from Washington County had perhaps the best game of his career Saturday and showed why so much has been expected of the free safety since he joined the program.

Gray had two interceptions and four tackles in the 33-7 win over North Carolina. He had two nice open-field tackles, both preventing long gains.

“I thought A.J. probably played as well as he has played,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “Some of their run-pass stuff, he was right on cue with it. He stepped underneath on the slants and got a couple of picks, and it was good to see him make plays because he has got a lot of ability. I’m proud of A.J. I thought he played well.”

Gray first interception came at a most opportune time.

Leading only 10-0, Georgia Tech was driving on its first possession of the second half when quarterback TaQuon Marshall had the ball stripped away, with North Carolina recovering at the Yellow Jackets’ 48. On the next play, quarterback Chazz Surratt fired a slant pass over the middle that Gray picked out of the air.

“We had the momentum right there when we get the turnover,” North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said. “We made a big deal about stealing possessions. Our guys get it; then we turn around and throw a pick. So that wasn’t good for the team.”

The takeaway gave Georgia Tech the ball on the 37, and B-back KirVonte Benson broke the next play for a 63-yard touchdown run. The momentum shifted, and Georgia Tech was on its way to the big win.

“I learned from my mistakes last year,” Gray said. “Last year they were reading me for the run, and if I came up, he’s going to throw the slant behind me. And if I sit there, he’s going to hand it off. This time, I just stayed there and played off (the quarterback). He was playing a game with me, but vice-versa I was playing a game with him, too.”

It was a game that Gray won. He added another interception later in the third quarter, his first two interceptions of the season and the second and third of his career.

“A.J.’s a ball hawk,” defensive back Lance Austin said.

Gray confirmed that he’s more comfortable this year than his two previous seasons, even though he played 10 games as a true freshman and started 13 games as a junior.

“Everything slows down from your freshman year,” Gray said. “Everything goes real fast, and my eyes were everywhere. Now I put my eyes where they’re supposed to be and just play.”

The former Georgia High School Player of the Year hopes this is an example of good things to come.

“It was definitely a step up,” he said. “It just happened. Now I have to build off of it and get better every game.”

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