New-look Gray ready to add to Tide defense
Ex-West Morgan standout heads into senior season healthy, confident
By Josh Cooper
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It was late July, and Alabama cornerback Eric Gray confidently walked into West Morgan High coach Pierre Coggins' office.
Coggins' former player seemed leaner and near-perfect shape. His 40-yard dash speed was shaved down to the 4.45-second range. He was running freely, not worrying if he was going to pull his hamstring — an issue that plagued him since he left Trinity for Tuscaloosa in 2003.
A bad hamstring can be devastating for a cornerback like Gray, who relies on his speed as much as anything else.
"He looked more fit than he ever looked before," Coggins said. "I don't know how to explain it. He looked a lot bigger. He was big at the beginning, but he looked different."
Gray's metamorphosis happened during the last several months. He has gone from injury-riddled to healthy. From quick to quicker.
"It is a blessing," Gray said. "I worked hard over the summer, and now it's paying off."
It's one of those ominous moments that occurs every day at the beginning of practice — reporters wonder if Gray will go through every drill with his teammates or wear a black non-contact jersey.
Gray declared himself healthy before spring practice, only to be seen in one of those dark uniforms soon after it started. He then missed the A-Day game April 21.
But that changed in the off-season. Head coach Nick Saban has his staff told the Crimson Tide players they would take karate lessons to help with physical conditioning, and few benefited more than Gray.
"I said to myself, '(Saban) must know something,' " Gray said. "He knows more than I know. So let's go for it."
Once a week during the summer, Gray and the rest of the Crimson Tide team took part in karate classes in the Ferguson Student Center.
It was something that Saban did when he coached at LSU, and it was a departure from the yoga drills that former coach Mike Shula used to put his team through.
Through the exercises, Gray was able to get more flexible. His hips moved more smoothly, and his abdomen became stronger.
But karate wasn’t the only exercise Gray did in the off-season. He also went through various workouts with the training staff to help increase his flexibility.
Gray’s new off-season regimen has worked ... at least so far.
When asked about Gray and his injury situation at the start of preseason practice, Saban knocked on his wooden podium, probably for good luck.
Saban works with the defensive backs every practice and has first-hand knowledge of how tough it would be for Gray to perform if he was not full speed.
But working with Saban has helped Gray in several respects. Getting the hands-on teaching from the head coach has given Gray more confidence.
According to Coggins, Gray had a swagger about him when he returned to West Morgan High’s campus during the summer.
Coggins didn’t see the Eric Gray who had endured injury after injury over the past three seasons.
Instead, Coggins saw an Eric Gray who thought he could compete for a larger role in Alabama’s defense.
“I’m confident in my ability to help out with the defense,” Gray said.
“I have high expectations, individually and collectively as a team. That is my mind-set — to do whatever I can help with the team.”
Eric Gray at a glance
n All-state performer at West Morgan High as a senior in 2002 when he rushed for 1,965 yards and scored 21 touchdowns.
n After redshirting in 2003, Gray played in nine games in ’04, mostly on special teams, making four tackles.
n Played in eight games as a sophomore in 2005, making eight tackles.
n Played in 13 games and started the last three of the season. Made 17 tackles, and had career-best six stops in the Independence Bowl against Oklahoma State.
- Josh Cooper
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