CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — Cedric Gray remembers the play.
With just over two minutes left in North Carolina's last trip to Scott Stadium in 2020, Virginia lined up to punt leading by three points. Instead of giving possession back to UNC, however, the Cavaliers ran a fake. Gray — then a first-year player delegated to special teams duties — mistimed his tackle and Virginia picked up the game-sealing first down.
Gray recalls it as one of the few moments from his first year that sticks out, and admits it was on his mind during North Carolina’s game against Virginia. But in UNC’s 31-28 win, where the junior linebacker recorded a career-high 16 tackles and registered the Tar Heels’ lone sack, Gray put that memory to rest.
“That (play) was definitely in the back of my head coming in here,” Gray said. “But I wake up every game day morning like, ‘Let's have a day.’”
But when the game began, the Tar Heels limped around the field.
With graduate jack Noah Taylor and junior defensive lineman Desmond Evans ruled out for the rest of the season due to injuries earlier in the week, North Carolina’s defensive line turned into a shuffleboard. Sophomore Jahvaree Ritzie started at power end for the first time in his career and junior Kaimon Rucker split snaps at jack.
Virginia marched down the field with ease on its initial drive and scored its first touchdown in over six quarters. Gray tallied four tackles on the first drive of Saturday's game, highlighting the importance of the Charlotte native to the team.
“I feel Cedric Gray is the best player on our defense,” head coach Mack Brown said. “He makes tackles every game. He’s all over the field, he’s a true leader.”
North Carolina’s defense played poorly in the first half, and Gray would be the first to say so. The Cavaliers gashed UNC’s front seven for 140 rushing yards and two scores.