North Carolina quarterback Chazz Surratt (12) runs against Georgia Tech defensive back A.J. Gray (5) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Jon Barash)
Photo: Jon Barash/AP
Photo: Jon Barash/AP

Georgia Tech’s A.J. Gray has career day vs. UNC

In another standout performance for the Georgia Tech defense, A.J. Gray’s play may have been the most impressive. 

The junior safety has been seeing the field for the Yellow Jackets since he was a freshman, but his two-interception day Saturday against North Carolina at Bobby Dodd Stadium lifted up the defense and doubled his career total entering the day. 

Tech held the Tar Heels Carolina to one late touchdown in a shutdown effort on its way to a 33-7 win, snapping a three-game losing streak against the Tar Heels. 

Gray’s two interceptions were timely. The first came directly after TaQuon Marshall fumbled near midfield with Tech’s lead at only 10 points. Gray jumped the slant route of UNC’s receiver and picked off Chazz Surratt’s pass for the second of his career. On the next play, KirVonte Benson took a handoff 63 yards for a touchdown. 

“I learned from my mistakes last year,” Gray said after the game. “Last year they were reading me off the runs. If I came up, they’d throw the slant behind me, and if I just sat there, they handed it off. But I just stayed there and then just played off of them. They were playing a game with me, but vice versa I was playing a game with them.” 

After the Tar Heels punted on their next drive, Gray struck again on the next possession. He picked off his second pass of the day and helped set up another Tech touchdown that all but put the game way at 24-0. 

“I told somebody walking in, I thought A.J. probably played as well as he has played,” coach Paul Johnson said. “Some of their run-pass stuff, he was right on cue with it. He stepped underneath the slants and got a couple picks, and it was good to see him make plays because he has got a lot of ability. Plus, he made a couple nice plays in open field on tackles. I’m proud of A.J.”

Lance Austin, a senior cornerback for Tech, has played alongside Gray and watched his maturity process since the beginning. He was impressed with the safety’s play Saturday.

“A.J. is a ballhawk,” Austin said. “He got two picks in the game, that’s hard to do. Then he got them in a critical time when the offense turned the ball over. I’m proud of A.J. and his performance today.” 

Gray has long been a player with hype surrounding him. He came into Georgia Tech as the AJC Player of the Year when he was a senior at Washington County High and immediately got playing time. The results haven’t been overwhelming, though, as Gray has been a sure-tackler and steady presence on an experienced defense, but he hasn’t been the playmaker that many expected him to be. Saturday may have marked the changing in that.

“I know how to play (now),” Gray said. “I know my job, so that allows me to play faster and just do things. Everything’s slowed down from freshman year, because my freshman year everything was real fast and my eyes were everywhere, but now I’m putting my eyes where they’re supposed to be.”

The Georgia Tech defense allowed only 4.3 yards per play and 247 total yards to UNC one week after allowing 4.3 and 235 to Pittsburgh. With its offense being turnover prone at times and working through a thin offensive line, Gray and the defense have been crucial in two easy wins for the Yellow Jackets.

“The way the defense is playing … I think we just want it,” Gray said. “We just want it more, and we’re playing with a lot of energy. That’s all there is to it.” 

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