WHEN CYRUS GRAY SIGNED HIS LETTER OF INTENT IN 2008 TO ATTEND TEXAS A&M, THE understanding was clear: He would not be handed a starting job. For a player at DeSoto High in suburban Dallas who was rated among the nation's best prospects and who could have stepped immediately into the backfield at any one of several BCS powers, it seemed like a bad deal. Many second-guessed his decision to take it. "We all thought he was going to go to Florida or Notre Dame or Louisville," says former DeSoto coach Dave Meadows.
According to Gray, what happened was that A&M linebacker Von Miller, who had graduated from DeSoto a year earlier, sold him (and his high school teammates Garrick Williams and Tony Jerod-Eddie) on the virtues of Aggies football with the enthusiasm of a used-car dealer. Miller's main selling points? Proximity to home (with A&M a three-hour drive south from DeSoto, family members are close enough to make the games, far enough away to discourage random drop-ins); the presence of friends (Gray, Miller, Jerod-Eddie and Williams had been teammates since their Pee Wee days); and the résumé of coach Mike Sherman, who, having spent six seasons as head coach of the Packers, could advise on making it in the NFL.
But without a true position, Gray struggled to find a groove in College Station. He was transitioning from quarterback (where he starred his senior year at DeSoto) back to running back (where he rushed for 1,482 yards and 31 TDs as a junior), was learning yet another position (slot receiver) and was paying his dues on special teams. Gray proved he could handle most of what the A&M coaches threw at him. As a freshman he carried the ball 75 times for 363 yards and racked up a school-record 1,169 yards in kick returns.
After that standout season Gray won the starting running back job in '09, but the emergence of a younger rival in Christine Michael kept him on edge. When nagging injuries slowed Gray late in the year, Michael leapfrogged him in the lineup. Before the '10 season, Michael was named the Aggies' full-time starter. Gray kept his cool, working hard in practice to prepare for his next chance. When Michael broke his right leg in late October, Gray seized the moment. He led the team in rushing yards (1,133) and rushing touchdowns (12) as A&M claimed a share of its first division crown since 1998. He also was a bright spot in the Aggies' 41--24 Cotton Bowl loss to LSU, gaining 100 yards on 20 carries.
Now that Michael is back and healthy again, how will Sherman divvy up the carries in '11? "We're going to have to be somewhat creative in terms of getting them on the field at the same time," says Sherman. Where the 5' 11", 215-pound Michael is a bruising north-south runner, the 5' 10", 198-pound Gray is a scatback who thrives in space and has improved as a pass blocker thanks to long hours of drills during the off-season. Together they form one of the most explosive backfields in the country and give A&M credible BCS aspirations.
"We've still got a salty taste in our mouths from the LSU loss," Gray says before acknowledging that the double threat he and Michael provide will make it tough for A&M to sneak up on anyone. "Everybody will be looking to knock us off." But nevertheless Gray is happy with the deal he made.