Friday Night Hero: A.L. Brown’s Desmond Gray
By Mike London
KANNAPOLIS ó A.L. Brown’s Desmond Gray wears a quarterback’s number, but he has a linebacker mentality.
Gray, No. 7, first made noise when he replaced injured Terrance Johnson and made a team-high 12 tackles in the 34-18 loss to Dudley in the 2008 3AA championship game.
“I was a backup so that was my chance to show what I can do,” Gray said. “As tough as that game was for us, it was great experience.”
Now a senior outside backer, Gray helps lead a defense that struggled early but now appears capable of maintaining a proud tradition. Brown’s defensive numbers still don’t look like Wonder numbers ó 20.8 points per game allowed ó but they’re headed in the right direction.
The Wonders (4-1, 1-0 SPC) allowed 276 rushing yards in a loss to South Rowan in Week 2. Then they trailed Thomasville 28-14 in Week 3 after the Bulldogs scored on a 57-run on the final snap of the first half. Halftime of that game at Cushwa Stadium appears to have been the turning point.
“I told the guys at halftime we were not playing, that this was not Wonder football,” Gray said. “Yeah, we’ve got some young guys. Yeah, we’ve got small guys. But that didn’t mean we were the low-class team some people said we were.”
Gray, 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, commands respect through his frame and his actions and helped inspire his teammates. Brown shut out Thomasville’s defending 1AA champs in the second half and rallied to win 34-28.
That victory boosted confidence, but coaches spent the open week that followed searching for answers. The offense, minus superstar quarterback Jamill Lott, had surpassed expectations so most of the tweaks were on defensive coordinator Noah Lyons’ side of the ball.
Head coach Ron Massey says it’s not that big a deal, but the Wonders emerged from their bye week showing Kings Mountain a 3-4 defensive look, instead of their standard 4-3. Senior defensive end Dana Moss, long and lean at 195 pounds, stood up up as a linebacker opposite Gray, with the 250-pound Johnson and junior Andrew Leslie (205) as inside backers.”My role didn’t change much, but we made Moss, who was a very fast defensive end, more of a linebacker,” Gray said. “Terrance, Josh, Andrew ó all those guys are very good players. We’ve been doing a better job of running downhill and everyone is getting to the football.”
Brown destroyed Kings Mountain 56-28, and it was actually 49-14 before the Wonders backed off. The telling defensive stats were four forced turnovers and a defensive touchdown on an interception return by Ladrian Black. Defensive touchdowns have been a Wonders’ staple over the years.
“Our defense may have looked a little different but mostly we just have guys moving around more, trying to take advantage of their speed,” Massey said. “Guys have still got a lot to learn as far as what they’re responsibilities are, but we have been more aggressive and we’re starting to get a few more turnovers.”
In last Friday’s SPC opener against Jay M. Robinson, the Wonders led 34-0 at halftime. The defense, maybe for the first time all season, was in control. The Wonders’ defense also accounted for a score for the second straight week, with Jaques Deese taking an interception 35 yards for six points.
“As a defense we’re moving up,” Gray said. “Never give up on any play. That’s the way we all look at things now.”
Gray, who had a fumble recovery against South, came up with another one against Kings Mountain. He’s helped Brown win the season turnover battle 14-8
“Desmond worked very hard in the offseason to improve,” Massey said. “He keeps working every day in practice, and that work is paying off.”