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NO GRAY AREAS <br> BILLS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR FOLLOWS LONG PATH AS A STAR PLAYER TO NEW ROLE IN THE COACHING RANKS

There are those who insist that if Jerry Gray isn't one of the top three or so defensive players ever to play for the University of Texas, he is undoubtedly the best defensive back to ever put on a Longhorns' uniform. He was regarded as a big-play safety who earned consensus All-America honors two years running, but there was one play in particular that grabbed the nation's attention.

In a nationally televised game in 1984, Gray sprinted 53 yards to run down Auburn's Bo Jackson, then hit him so hard that Jackson suffered a separated shoulder. One physical marvel meeting another.

"The game was easy for me because I was having fun," Gray said. "It was never a struggle."

The challenge he's facing now is different than chasing future Heisman Trophy winners or lowering his forearm on some unsuspecting wideout who dared stray between the hash marks. Gray is in his first season as the defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills, a position that places him under an intense spotlight that can be tough to bear.

He knew there were going to be doubters when the Bills abandoned the 3-4 defense they had used successfully since 1979 in favor of the 4-3. He knew some people were going to ask questions about the change, especially after the Bills had the third-ranked defense last year following a season in which they were ranked No. 1.

Molding the unit in his resilient image is even more daunting minus steadfast veterans like Marcellus Wiley, Ted Washington, John Holecek and Sam Rogers. Now Sam Cowart, the pulse of the group, is down for the year with a partially torn right Achilles tendon.

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning sliced and diced the Bills' secondary last Sunday as if its schemes were tucked away in his socks. The Colts rolled up 555 yards, the third-highest total ever allowed by the Bills, who have given up a league-high 856 yards in their first two games. There are more questions than answers.

Gray expects that situation will reverse itself soon.

"I've been on teams where when a new scheme comes in, guys are kind of skeptical when it doesn't work early," Gray said. "But if it works early, that's fine for a young guy. Old guys keep ticking and ticking. Then all of a sudden, they get five or six sacks, next thing you know you look back and things look a lot better."

Those who know Gray well are confident that things will get better, that his success as a defensive coordinator, and some day as a head coach in either college or the NFL, is expected.

This is the man who was such a good athlete that he played quarterback in high school but became a defensive All-American in college. He's the man who played safety in college then converted to cornerback in the NFL and became a four-time Pro Bowler, the NFL's Defensive Back of the Year twice and the MVP of the 1990 Pro Bowl, when he played for the Los Angeles Rams. This is the man who is a defensive coordinator just four years after earning his first NFL coaching position.

"The thing about Jerry is he's honest," former Rams teammate Eric Dickerson said. "Players don't like to be (expletive) and a lot of coaches do that. But Jerry is straightforward and honest."

Gray has never used an alarm clock, yet pulls into the Bills parking lot as early as 4:30 a.m., and never after 5 a.m. He taught himself how to play golf and even lowered his handicap by mimicking what the pros do on TV.

This is just another obstacle.

"Every goal he sets out ends up being true," said Louis Kelley, Gray's high school coach. "Every . . . single . . . goal."

The work ethic comes from his mother, the late Jessie Simmons, who raised Gray and his five brothers and three sisters in a modest three-bedroom home in a lower middle class section of Lubbock, Texas.

Jessie would leave home at 8 a.m. to clean the home of a prominent doctor in town. At 2 p.m., she went to work at the Lubbock State School, helping mentally ill children until 10 p.m. She followed the same routine for 20 years. Gray said his father, Oscar, wasn't around much, although their relationship strengthened while he was in high school.

"I learned how to work from her," Gray said. "She never complained about working two jobs. Sometimes she was tired but she kept going on and that's what I took from her. No matter what the situation is, you make the best out of it."

Gray gravitated to sports early and turned into a star by the time he reached high school. Recruiters flocked to see him run the option as he guided Lubbock Estacado to three state semifinals in a row and ran the offense so flawlessly that Barry Switzer wanted Gray to run his wishbone attack at Oklahoma.

Still, it would have taken something special to steer Gray away from Texas. He fell in love with the campus when he competed there in a state championship track meet. He lived only 10 minutes from Texas Tech, but when the Red Raiders recruited him with only lukewarm interest he signed with the Longhorns.

"You never really saw Texas Tech people come around to our school," he said. "It was there, you know it's there, but it wasn't a deal where you were welcomed. If you don't know, you won't go."

The old Southwest Conference had a tradition of strong defensive backs and Gray enhanced it, finishing as a consensus All-American at safety and becoming a first-round pick of the Rams in 1985.

"The sense of class and dignity and poise that the guy had was a big factor for us," said former Rams coach John Robinson, now at UNLV. "He was a very loyal and longtime Ram and became a very smart player. He was the guy who ran our secondary but he was really instrumental as a leader and as a knowledge guy."

He played for the Rams until 1991 before his career took him to Houston and then finally Tampa Bay, where his playing career ended. In Gray's last season with Tampa Bay, Eddie Khayat, the former defensive line coach and an old military guy, planted the seed to Gray's future.

"Jerry," Khayat said. "There's not enough soldiers coaching. There's not enough ex-players coaching this game. You're a student of the game. You can teach it."

A year after his retirement, Gray sent resumes to several college coaches but received a tepid response.

"Most of the guys were telling me you need this, this and this," he said. "Even Texas."

But not Southern Methodist coach Tom Rossley. Shortly after hiring Gray, Rossley told a reporter that Gray was the best secondary coach he had ever worked with.

"He wanted someone who could teach the guys how to play football," Gray said. "He didn't want a scheme guy, he wanted someone who could teach technique, teaching them what to do and show them how to watch film."

But Rossley was fired after the 1996 season. As Gray, who continued to recruit, was leaving a brief meeting with new coach Mike Cavan, he was told there was a phone call for him. It was Gregg Williams and General Manager Floyd Reese from the Houston Oilers, asking Gray if he was interested in joining the staff in a quality control position.

"I never thought about joining the NFL," said Gray, who met Williams when he was with Houston in 1992 and Williams was the quality control coach. "It was like getting a $30,000 education because I worked on computers every day. It was a surprise, but it was right on time."

He learned quickly and advanced in a blink, spending two years as the Titans' defensive backs coach before landing his position with the Bills. The aggressive style Gray helped employ at Tennessee the last two years created a combined 179 sacks and turnovers -- the second-highest total in the NFL behind New Orleans.

Similar success is expected in Buffalo. In time.

"Jerry's an intense guy," defensive end Phil Hansen said. "He works hard and knows his X's and O's. He's trying to implement this new defense. It takes time to get that going and for the players to learn him and him to learn us. But it's been a good marriage so far."

But there are ghosts to battle here. The franchise has leaned heavily on defense, especially since the retirement of Jim Kelly. Yet there is a self-awareness in Gray, a sense of perspective that has been there since high school. He knows he must keep learning and teaching to make this Bills defense his Bills defense.

"I wanted to be the best no matter what," he said. "I wanted to be the best in the NFL, I wanted to be All-Pro, I wanted to be the best defensive back in the NFL and every year I made sure my standards were high. It's the same way I approach coaching."

e-mail: r mckissic@buffnews.com

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