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August 20, 2008This is one competition Corwin Brown doesn't want to end.
The way Notre Dame's defensive coordinator sees it, the longer the battle goes on between Raeshon McNeil and Gary Gray for a starting cornerback job, the better it is for the Irish secondary. All signs point to the junior filling the vacancy created by Darrin Walls' absence, but Gray continues to keep that conclusion from becoming foregone.
"That little battle that they're having it's been interesting," Brown said. "Nobody wants to just say, 'OK, you're the starter.' Nobody wants to just concede anything."
Particularly Gray, not after a broken arm cut short his first spring practice regimen and shoulder surgery shelved him all last season. That means the sophomore from Columbia, S.C., has been a Notre Dame football player for 20 months without suiting up for a single game.
That delayed gratification could tempt Gray to look ahead, but the competition with McNeil has kept the cornerback back pedaling between here and now. After practice Tuesday, Gray talked about getting better "every day" at least six times instead of making future forecasts.
Gray said he's happy to extend the cornerback competition into the season and downplayed the importance of winning the starting job. With the number of passing offenses the Irish figure to face this season, if McNeil lands the No. 1 spot, Gray figures to be No. 1A.
"I don't think there's a deadline, but we're going to compete every day and whoever gets the job, gets the job," Gray said. "We clap for each other when we do one-on-ones, we clap for each other when we make a big play."
Gray has been making plenty of them during training camp as he continues to fit into Brown's aggressive defense that often leaves cornerbacks in solitary coverage. While the sophomore might not have the height of McNeil or freshman Robert Blanton, he's plenty physical at the line of scrimmage. Standing 5-foot-11 and 188 pounds may not seem imposing on paper, but Gray prides himself on ruining the timing of receivers.
"Mentally it takes them out of the game," Gray said. "If they don't get a good release off the line it messes up their route."
Gray did enough of that in high school to rank among the nation's top cornerbacks and the country's elite prospects overall. The cornerback did all that while playing his senior season at Richland Northeast with a high ankle sprain and mangled right ring finger that was broken during a summer combine. Now healthy, Gray can't wait to turn his potential into production, although McNeil won't make it easy.
"It's been a great competition," McNeil said. "He's made some plays; I've made some plays. I've had down days; he's had down days. We've both been playing at the same level.
"I believe me and Gary are similar in a lot of ways personality, style of play. I think we have a lot of things in common as a player. You always want to be the best at your position. We're both just preparing to be out there a lot."
For Gray, that time should start 18 days from now when Notre Dame hosts San Diego State. The only question is whether Gray will contribute as a starter or a reserve.
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