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Saturday December 3rd

Cedric Gray leads battered North Carolina defense in victory against Virginia

<p>UNC junior linebacker Cedric Gray (33) tackles Virginia junior wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. (1) during the football game at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, V.A. on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022. UNC beat Virginia 31-28.&nbsp;</p>
<p>Photo Courtesy of Jeremy Sharpe.</p>
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UNC junior linebacker Cedric Gray (33) tackles Virginia junior wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. (1) during the football game at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, V.A. on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022. UNC beat Virginia 31-28. 

Photo Courtesy of Jeremy Sharpe.

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.

The defensive anchor knew his unit could do better, and out of the break, North Carolina stifled a once fruitful Virginia ground game to 46 yards over the last two quarters of play. Gray also sacked Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstong midway through the third quarter.

“(Gray’s) always been a dog — the confidence,” junior cornerback Storm Duck said. “You’ve seen him grow year to year.”

Before the game, Taylor — who previously played at Virginia for three years — was chosen to give the team’s pregame pep talk. Gray said the graduate jack didn’t focus the speech on himself, nor discuss any potential ill wills toward his old team. 

Rather, Taylor asked for each player to think of their “why.”

“My reason (for playing) is definitely my family, for sure — particularly my mom and my oldest brother,” Gray said. “Growing up it was just us three so they’re definitely my biggest inspiration.”

In a game where he registered 16 tackles, the lone sack for UNC and deflected a pass that was eventually intercepted, Gray knows his family is proud of the career performance.

The display also exemplified the consistent impact he’s left on North Carolina's defense this year. In a featured role, Gray’s starting to rewrite plays that once doomed him — ones that now make him smile when they are brought up. 

Now, each time he lines up in the middle of the UNC defense, Gray knows exactly what needs to be done to put his team over the top. 

“The main thing is just to be the best version of myself so I can help this team win games,” he said. “If I’ve got to make every tackle, then that’s just what I have to do.”

@evanr0gers

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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