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Monday December 5th

After breakout season, Cedric Gray ready to emerge as UNC's next great linebacker

<p>UNC sophomore linebacker Cedric Gray (33) carries in the North Carolina flag before the Tar Heels' home matchup in Kenan Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 against the Georgia State Panthers.</p>
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UNC sophomore linebacker Cedric Gray (33) carries in the North Carolina flag before the Tar Heels' home matchup in Kenan Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 against the Georgia State Panthers.

Throughout his football career, the spotlight has always been close but never fixated on UNC junior linebacker Cedric Gray.

In high school, starring at Ardrey Kell in Charlotte, Gray was listed as a three-star prospect and received only one Power Five offer — North Carolina.

“I definitely had an interesting journey to (North) Carolina,” Gray said. “In high school, I kind of had a chip on my shoulder, so coming in I knew I just had to work, and one day an opportunity would present itself.”

In his first season in Chapel Hill, Gray saw limited action as future third-round NFL draft pick Chazz Surratt headlined North Carolina’s linebacker room. Even after bursting onto the scene by registering 100 tackles in his sophomore year, Gray's efforts were largely overshadowed by the vocal play of team captain Jeremiah Gemmel.  

Following the graduation of Gemmel, and with other young defensive pieces looking up to him, Gray is ready to step into his role as a leader of the defense. Under new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, the Charlotte native seems poised and ready to take on the challenge of helping the Tar Heels improve after a lackluster 6-7 season.

‘All he wanted was an opportunity'

Before he could burst onto the scene, Gray found himself playing on North Carolina’s second unit.

To open the 2021 season, junior Eugene Asante paired with Gemmel as the team's top two linebackers. Following a breakout performance in the 2021 Orange Bowl — where he led UNC in tackles — Asante’s starting role seemed secure, leaving Gray on the outside looking in. 

However, Asante struggled with missed tackles and blown assignments early in the year, triggering inside linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen to make a change. In the Tar Heels’ third game of the season, Gray earned his first collegiate start, where he registered six tackles. 

“All (Gray) wanted was an opportunity,” Thigpen said. “He never griped, he never moaned and he was never in the locker room complaining that it wasn’t his time. When that opportunity came, he took full advantage of it.”

Gray's solid play didn't stop there. Two games later, he racked up 11 tackles for the first time in his career. In the team's win over Miami in October, his two interceptions helped the Tar Heels earn a much-needed victory.

With each game, the once sparsely-seen linebacker blossomed into a consistent force in the middle. By the end of season, Gray’s stellar sophomore campaign made him the team's leading tackler — something he’s using to elevate himself into a new role in 2022. 

“Coming off of last year, and the type of season I had, I know I’m the new leader of the linebacker room,” Gray said. “It’s definitely something I’m looking forward to.”

‘Student of the game’

This year, Gray stands as one of the few linebackers on UNC's roster that has multiple years of college experience. With the knowledge he’s learned, Gray’s wisdom has rubbed off on North Carolina’s young linebackers. 

“Cedric Gray is really smart and that’s what we need on the defense as a captain,” sophomore linebacker Rara Dillworth said. “What he tells me is never wrong, and when I do it, I’m right.”

Gray’s knowledge of the game is evident on the field. After spending some time playing safety in high school, his ability to spot offensive formations during the pre-snap allows him to drop back into coverage 15 yards down the field or meet a running back in the backfield. 

However, Gray’s intelligent play doesn't come solely from his football instincts. 

“Kind of like Gemmel, he’s one of the more cerebral guys I’ve been around in a long time,” Thigpen said.” (Gray) has always been a student of the game.”

With Gray slotting into the lead linebacker role, the search to find his running mate was easy. Sophomore Power Echols filled the spot, with his tenacity complementing Gray’s calculated style of play. 

The two appeared to form a bond organically during the offseason, to the point where Gray and Echols compare themselves to a historic NBA duo, due to the jersey numbers they have. 

“23 and 33 — that’s the Chicago Bulls,” Echols said. “We always talk about (us being) MJ and Pippen.”

No matter which linebacker ends up assuming the “Michael Jordan” title — though based solely on jersey numbers, Echols may have the upper hand — one thing is certain for Gray.

For the first time, the spotlight no longer rests upon another linebacker. 

Rather, the beam lies directly over Gray, and only he will get to decide how long the light stays on.

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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