1-On-1 With UNC’s ‘Other’ All-American:
Senior Linebacker/Captain Cedric Gray

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

Quarterback Drake Maye, who last season became North Carolina’s first Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year since legendary defensive superstar Lawrence Taylor in 1980, clearly is the most well-known player on the 2023 Tar Heels.

UNC does have another All-American, though, and Cedric Gray’s job — leading a Carolina defense that ranked among the worst in the ACC last season — also is essential to the Heels’ stated goal of winning the program’s first conference championship since 1980.

Although Maye and Gray are both from Charlotte, the site of last week’s ACC Kickoff media event, the Tar Heels’ season opener against South Carolina (Sept. 2) and the ACC championship game (Dec. 2), the players took much different roads to Chapel Hill.

Maye, of course, was a prep All-American at Myers Park High School, a son of former UNC quarterback Mark Maye, a brother of former Carolina basketball star Luke Maye, etc. Drake had committed to legendary coach Nick Saban and Alabama in July 2019, only to flip his pledge to legendary coach Mack Brown and the Tar Heels in March 2020.

Gray, a three-year team captain, productive two-way player (wide receiver and linebacker) and all-state selection at Ardrey Kell High School, was a relatively unheralded prospect. Months after his junior season had ended, he still didn’t have any Power Five scholarship options; he was contemplating offers from Appalachian State, Marshall and others.

Then Brown, newly hired for his second head coaching tenure with the Tar Heels, took the advice of UNC linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen (who had recruited Gray while working for Larry Fedora, Brown’s predecessor) and invited Gray to Carolina’s 2019 spring game. Gray received a scholarship offer during that visit and committed to the Heels soon after, despite other interest/trips at that point with Louisville, NC State, South Carolina and West Virginia.

Now a team captain and three-year starter for the Tar Heels, Gray made himself a household name in college football and on National Football League draft boards last season, when he led all Power Five players with 145 tackles, earned first-team All-ACC honors and was named a second-team All-American by Pro Football Focus and The Sporting News.

Gray joined Maye and tight end John Copenhaver as UNC’s player representatives at the ACC Kickoff event. The following questions and answers are from our exclusive interview with Gray.

Q: Your coach, Mack Brown, is already in the College Football Hall of Fame. He’s already won a national championship, at Texas. He’s already built multiple national top-10 teams during his time at UNC. How did he impact your decision to play for the Tar Heels, and what do you think makes him such a special coach?

Gray: I definitely think he was a part of (my selection of UNC), although I went to UNC on visits before he even got there.

When I tell you that the energy and the vibe was completely different when this man (pointing to Brown) stepped through the door … I can’t lie to you, it was completely different. So he was definitely a part of it.

There were other things. UNC, I felt like, was the only (major conference) school that really gave me a chance. That was my only Power Five offer coming out of high school. But not only that, I just felt it was the place for me. It’s not too far from home, but far enough. Those are the kinds of things that went into my decision.

But he definitely was a part of it, for sure. I don’t think I would have gone there if this man (pointing to Brown) wasn’t there.

Q: There are 42 ACC football players here at the ACC Kickoff event, but only you, Drake and Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader are actually from the Charlotte area. Is this event a homecoming for you at all, or is this just a quick business trip?

Gray: I haven’t been able to see any family or friends on this trip in particular. I’ve been finishing up some summer classes back in Chapel Hill.

But I definitely come down here a good amount. It’s not a far drive, only about two and a half hours. So I definitely get here when I can to see everyone.

Q: Other ACC teams and players may see Drake Maye once a year, but you’re stuck dealing with him in practice every day. As some call him maybe the greatest quarterback in UNC history, how do you describe what makes Maye special?

Gray: The #1 thing, he is a competitor. I mean, the dude loves to compete, dude loves to compete.

But I think what kind of separates him from a football standpoint is that he is very intelligent. He is a student of the game. He knows what to do, where to go with the ball. He makes a lot of the right decisions, whether that’s running, throwing the ball away, or getting it to the open guy. I mean, he is a very, very intelligent football player, and I think that separates him.

Q: You were the leading tackler in the Power Five conferences last season, second-team All-American and first-team All-ACC, yet you said you stayed in school at least in part because there were individual and team goals you had not accomplished yet. What’s on that list?

Gray: From a personal standpoint, I just feel like I haven’t reached my ceiling. I feel like, even with the great season I had last year, I could get a lot better before entering the NFL draft.

Not only that, I’m in no rush to rush my blessing. That’s something my mom kind of instilled in me. It’s all about timing. You don’t want to mess the timing up.

From a team perspective, I’ve been here for three years. We went to the Orange Bowl my freshman year, Duke’s Mayo (Bowl) sophomore year, Holiday Bowl and the ACC championship game last year. We won none of those games, and that means a lot to me.

It really means something to me to win a bowl game or win the ACC championship. That’s something that I really, really want to accomplish.

Q: UNC’s defense struggled badly in some areas last year while trying to learn Gene Chizik’s system. How do you describe what goes into learning a new defense at the college level, and what are your expectations for your group during the 2023 season, now that you and many other players are entering your second season in this system?

Gray: First, I think learning any (college) defense, coming out of high school, is a lot different for anybody. In high school, it’s way simpler. When you get to college, it’s way more complex.

From Year One to Year Two, I believe this year we just have more experience. I think that’s one of the greatest teachers, just experience — learning, messing up. We made a lot of mistakes last year, and I think we’ve learned our lessons from them.

Not only that, his teachings this year are getting a lot more detailed. I feel like last year was very base level with what to do, because we were learning a new defense. Now, in Year Two, we can get a lot more detailed with what we’re trying to accomplish.

Q: NFL people are talking about you now. When do you remember first watching the NFL or the first time you thought maybe you can play in that league one day, too?

Gray: First, I want to say that it’s really, truly a dream come true just to even make it to this level that I’m at right now, because that’s always been a dream of mine, probably from the womb.

I’ve been playing football my whole life. The earliest I can remember is like five years old. I’ve always kind of been particularly good at it, and it’s been a dream of mine even just to make it to this level and play in front of 80,000 people.

Now, to be successful and have a chance to make it to the NFL, it’s very surreal. It’s very life-changing.

Q: As we let you go, what was the most fun thing that happened to you here at this ACC Kickoff event, maybe the best question you received or the answer you most enjoyed giving?

Gray: You made my day! I told you, that intro (listing his 2022 highlights at the start of our video/audio interview) made my day. I’m not gonna lie; that was the best intro I got all day.

David Glenn (DavidGlennShow.com@DavidGlennShow) is an award-winning author, broadcaster, editor, entrepreneur, publisher, speaker, writer and university lecturer (now at UNC Wilmington) who has covered sports in North Carolina since 1987.

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