Football preview: Millbrook’s Gray kicking himself to the top
WINCHESTER — Though Tyler Gray first began playing soccer when he was 5, he never noticed anything exceptional about his leg strength prior to the summer of 2010, when Gray entered eighth grade.
But while there’s a big difference between kicking a round ball and an oval one, the bottom line is that kicking is what soccer players do. And that’s why Admiral Byrd football coach Josh Brozek asked anyone with soccer experience to come out to the football field to show what they could do during the first week of football practice.
The end result of a swing of his right leg toward a one-inch kickoff block was a kicked football that traveled 40 yards in the air before it struck ground, the best attempt of the day.
It wasn’t a moment that hooked Gray immediately on kicking, but it did establish a trend — footballs have a way of flying off Gray’s foot in fabulous fashion.
Four years after his initial foray into football, Gray is being recruited by NCAA Division I schools Richmond, James Madison and Liberty, and the elite kicking organization Kohl’s has the Millbrook senior rated as a five-star recruit and ranks him 21st in the nation for the class of 2015.
“When I first started kicking, I didn’t imagine this is where I’d be right now,” Gray said.
Josh Haymore is just glad the place where Gray calls home is Millbrook. Though the second-year coach didn’t get to use Gray much in 2013 because of the Pioneers’ offensive struggles (99 points), Gray is the only player on Millbrook’s roster who’s ever appeared on a first team All-Northwestern District list — he’s done it twice.
So if Millbrook can play offense a little more like 2012 (333 points) as opposed to 2013, teams might have to temper their excitement a little bit if they force a fourth-and-long at their own 30-yard line.
Because not only is there a good chance they’ll give up three points — Gray, who made a 46-yarder while making eight of 10 attempts for Millbrook in 2012, kicked a 63-yard field goal in practice earlier this summer — but if Gray does make his field goal, there’s also a good chance they’ll be starting their next possession at the 20. Gray’s kickoffs can travel as long as 77 yards.
“He helps you out a lot,” Haymore said. “Obviously I want to score in the red zone by running the ball in or throwing the ball in. But it helps ease your mind, and helps with your play-calling, when you have someone like him.
“It’s pretty impressive, the concentration and the moxie that he has when he walks on the field. I can’t wait to utilize him more than we did last year.”
Whether it’s a field goal, extra point, deep kickoff or a well-placed punt, Gray is willing to do whatever it takes to help Millbrook succeed, just like he’s been willing to do whatever it takes to make himself a better player.
After kicking for Admiral Byrd in eighth grade, Gray’s interest in the specialty started to grow through workouts with his father after the season, then took on greater appeal after attending two Kohl’s camps at Hermitage High School in Richmond in the summer prior to his freshman year and receiving positive feedback about his potential.
“I was doing pretty good, so I stuck with it,” Gray said.
Gray went on to make a 37-yard field goal for Millbrook’s JV team in the fall of 2011. And in Pioneers assistant coach Wes Farnan — a 2007 Millbrook graduate and former Pioneers quarterback — Gray had someone who took a strong interest in helping him develop his skills.
Farnan consulted people like Vanderbilt special teams coordinator Charles Bankins — a longtime acquaintance dating back to Bankins’ days at Hampton University, where Bankins worked from 2000-04 and 2006 before moving on to Richmond and Maryland — and friends like current Division I Eastern Kentucky kicker Andrew Lloyd, a James Wood graduate, about technique and how to prepare physically and mentally for games.
“Coach Farnan has helped me out a lot,” Gray said.
With another summer of camp experience in 2012, Gray was more than ready to take on the role of varsity kicker for his sophomore year.
It didn’t take long for Gray to show he could be cool in the clutch.
Against Harrisonburg at home in the team’s fourth game on Sept. 14, Gray kicked a 36-yard field with two seconds left in the first half to cut the Pioneers’ deficit to 20-17. With two seconds left in regulation, Gray tied the game at 27 with a 35-yard field goal, then capped his night by drilling the game-winning extra-point after Logan Rodeffer’s 2-yard touchdown tied the game at 33 on Millbrook’s first possession of overtime.
“That was one of the greatest moments of my life,” said Gray of his performance.
Gray went on to record an area-best 60 points among kickers in 2012. But with Millbrook losing most of its offensive personnel from 2012, Gray didn’t get to trot onto the field much in 2013, unless he was punting. (In his first year as Millbrook’s punter, Gray averaged 33.4 yards on 50 punts to rank second in the area.) Gray managed only 19 points on 10 extra points and three field goals.
But Gray now has his holder from his sophomore year back in Chris Oates, and the summer he just went through has him brimming with confidence. He kicked 50- and 48-yard field goals in the team’s first two scrimmages.
Gray graded out as the top kicking specialist in camps at James Madison, Richmond and Liberty (there were four or five other kickers there). And at the Kohl’s national camp in Wisconsin July 19-20, Gray said he finished 19th in the field goal competition and 13th in the kickoff competition out of the more than 500 players in attendance.
Gray takes just as much pride in his kickoffs as his field goals.
“My goal this year is to get 100 percent touchbacks,” said Gray, who had seven of his 27 kickoffs go for touchbacks last year.
And as always, the goal is to make 100 percent of his field goals when conditioning drills are on the line.
Gray said the Pioneers will usually spend the first 20 minutes on special teams, and the last kick of that session is under pressure — his teammates are required to scream, and Haymore will try and distract him by doing things like throwing paper at him or dropping his keys. If Gray misses, the team has to run extra at the end of practice, but Gray’s accuracy was almost 100 percent last year.
“I don’t want my teammates to have to run,” Gray said.
Though Gray wants to ease the load of his teammates when he can, Haymore would love it if they take on as much as he does, whether it’s lifting, conditioning, working on his skills, or speaking up when needed.
“If you could take his work ethic and apply it to any position on the football field, we’d be a really, really, really good team,” Haymore said. “I’m glad to have him.”
— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @WinStarSports1