PEOPLE EXPECTED BIG THINGS FROM MARQUEIS GRAY WHEN HE GRADUATED FROM Ben Davis High in Indianapolis in 2008. He was the top recruit in the state of Indiana, the third-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the country (both per Rivals.com) and a U.S. Army All-American. Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo remembers touring the conference that summer, and something struck him when he visited practices at Minnesota and Ohio State. "When you looked at MarQueis Gray and Terrelle Pryor, if you saw them 10 times, you might say Gray was better five times and Pryor was better five times," DiNardo says. "They were very similar."
Pryor, the No. 1--ranked dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school, went on to throw for 6,177 yards and rush for 2,164 over the next three seasons. Unfortunately for Gray, his story unfolded a little differently.
He spent that summer of 2008 on campus working out with the Gophers, then went through two-a-days in August. A week before Minnesota's opening game Gray got a call from his mother, Alicia, who was crying. There were questions about his ACT score, and he would need to take the test again. "He was hurt, and I was hurt," Alicia says. "It caused a lot of pain. He felt like his career was over."
Gray went home to Indianapolis, and after prodding from his mother ("He was sitting around here moping," she says) he got a job in the electronics department of Target. He spent what should have been his first semester at Minnesota studying for and retaking the ACT and working out with his former team at Ben Davis. Gray passed the test and reenrolled at Minnesota in January 2009 but wound up as the backup after failing to unseat quarterback Adam Weber in spring practice.
Weber was excelling—he would go on to set school records for career passing yards and TDs—and in an effort to get the athletic Gray on the field beyond a handful of Wildcat-formation plays, coach Tim Brewster moved him to wideout that fall. Gray stayed there through 2010 in addition to maintaining his backup quarterback duties, yet although he caught 42 passes for 587 yards and five touchdowns, he never considered himself anything other than a quarterback. As soon as Jerry Kill was hired from Northern Illinois to replace Brewster last December, Gray jumped on YouTube and started watching the Northern Illinois offense. When the staff arrived, Gray entrenched himself in the video room, poring over the new multiple scheme he hoped to direct. "I knew if I worked hard with the new coaching staff, I could be the starting quarterback," says Gray.
Kill has been sparing with his praise of the team he inherited, but Gray is one of the few players who has earned kudos from the coach. "It is amazing to see how much he has picked up, and it is scary to think [what might have been] if he had been playing quarterback the whole time," Kill says. "We didn't back off him at all. We made him call plays at the line of scrimmage, and he did a great job."
Gray says he's more excited than nervous for the upcoming season, and he feels no pressure to finally live up to the hype that accompanied him when he graduated from high school. "I'm just trying to get Minnesota to a winning record and respond to those people who say we are not a football school," says Gray. "We want to turn this program around."