High School Football Defensive Player of the Year: Grey, a force in the Falcons’ trenches
Published Sunday 4 December 2022 00:01
MOUNT ULLA – Don’t let Alijiah Gray’s warm, friendly smile and calm demeanor fool you.
Cloaked in this sturdy 6-foot-1, 265-pound frame, West Rowan’s defensive tackle executes his craft with enough ferocity and power to form a Zeke Biggers tribute band.
“I’ve always loved to play physically,” Gray said recently in his “don’t wake the baby” voice. “I love fighting and getting sacks and all that that entails.”
Now something else. Despite not earning a spot on the All-South Piedmont Conference team, Gray was named Rowan County Defensive Player of the Year.
“Actually, I was shocked,” the senior said during an interview midweek. “Because I did an all-conference last year and I thought I’d play even better this year. But if you look at the guys who got it – yes, they all deserve it. They showed what they have.”
gray too. He helped the 9-3 Falcons reach Round 2 of the state playoffs by making 87 tackles and adding 12 TFLs, five sacks and a fumbled recovery in the regular-season finals against East Rowan. Indeed, a nice basket of oats – and there is not much to question.
“Sneaky good year,” was the first response third-year coach Louis Kraft gave. “When we looked at our season stats, we realized what a productive year he’s had. He obviously got noticed, but some of the shine was taken away from him by the two defensive ends we had – Hunter Miller and Kevin Toomer. They had double digit sacks. It’s not that we didn’t notice (Gray), but it’s easier to notice sacks than consistent tackles and TFLs. People get paid big bucks to get sacks.”
Gray’s payday will have to wait. Once a two-way linesman, he blossomed into a hand-fighting cheese-grater on the DL, routinely widening, darning the barrel and blowing up passes. And considering it all started with a less-than-lustrous pre-season review from a published source. “A bunch of no-names,” Kraft said. “We should be.”
Instead, West kicked off his season with an invigorating win at Salisbury, beating their county opponents 5-0, finishing second in SPC scoring and earning a first-round playoff win over Franklin.
“There were many times we could have gone broke,” Gray said. “We could have laid down, but we didn’t. We never stopped. That was the biggest difference. When we got hit last year, we dropped our heads. This year we learned how to push through it – and it helped us win games.”
The Falcons were at their best in October, winning three straight conference games and scoring just 19 points. Their season ended on November 11 in a staggering 56-42 second-round loss at West Henderson.
“Not bad considering we were overlooked earlier in the year,” Gray announced. “A lot of people said we weren’t going to work out. We were nobody. It just made us angry, made us work harder and win more. That’s what made us beat Salisbury. It was a statement right there. It showed us what we can do.”
It showed power with diaphanous clarity what a menacing lineman Gray could be.
“Disorder. That’s really all we asked him to do,” said Kraft, a lovable special education teacher. “He calls for a doubles team. And if you double a guy, another guy gets left to his own devices. You turn on the movie and you recognize him immediately. In practice we couldn’t block him. We would play offensive games, but if he defended there we wouldn’t have done much.
Gray hopes to play at the collegiate level next fall while pursuing an athletic/business management degree. He has received offers from Division III schools, Carolina Christian and Averett University. Shaw University recently expressed interest.
“I want to get playing time and learn from the guys with more experience,” Gray said. “But what I really want is a degree. I want to someday own a shoe store like Foot Locker and market athletic apparel.”
Kraft believes a foundation has been laid for success and expects Gray to sign in the spring – after the transfer portal’s pool of players was upset. “He’s ready for college, no question about it,” he said. ‘He’ll be helping someone next fall. We just have to find out who.”
Armed with a defensive POY accolade, Gray’s résumé now got significantly stronger.
“That’s a great achievement,” he beamed. “At the beginning of the season there was all this confusion. I didn’t know where I was going or how the season would end. But right now everything is joy. I understand if some people still have doubts about me and our team, but now everyone in the county knows our name.”
They do – in part because of a quiet player who made a loud impression.
Nationwide Defense (17)
Salisbury (4) – Anthony Dodd, Deuce Walker, Amare Johnson, Dashown Brown
West (4) – Alijiah Gray, Kevin Toomer, Hunter Miller, Aubree Robinson
Carson (3)—Easton Mullis, Jake Ross, Cody Russell
North (3) – Tsion Kelly, Bryson Crisco, Khalil Davis
East (2) – Josh Roman-Soto, Morgan Padgett
South (1) – Aquiles Bernal
Honorable Mention – Trevor Vaughn and Carson Aman, Carson; Jaylin Graham-Taylor and DJ Adams, Salisbury; Canyon Turner, west; Jadarrion Sullivan and Khor’on Miller, North; Jacob Trimnal, South
Tuesday: Special Teams Player of the Year
Thursday: Coach of the Year
Next Sunday: Offensive Player of the Year