In his 30 years of coaching, Kevin Locastro has coached and faced some great players, but Eric Gray stands out.
Gray, who recently committed to Michigan’s 2019 class and is ranked the No. 1 all-purpose back in the country by 247Sports, was the Gatorade Tennessee State Player of the Year last year and two-time Mr. Football. Gray, from Lausanne Collegiate in Memphis, will try to become the first player in the state to win it three times.
He has 93 career touchdowns and is going for the state record of 132 held by Troy Fleming of Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, Tenn.
“I’ve coached some pretty good running backs, but Eric is definitely the best all-around back I’ve had the opportunity to coach,” Locastro told The Detroit News. “He’s been an amazing player to coach and that’s the thing that makes him so good. He gives great effort every day. That’s infectious to the team.”
Locastro can’t say enough about Gray and his ability and praised his work ethic and skill set.
“Watch his highlights,” Locastro said. “Of all the kids I’ve coached at that position, he has the ability to make people miss in small spaces. That’s one thing that gets overlooked. … He’s also developed himself into being a physical runner and can pick up the tough yards when needed.
“He’s also the best receiver on our team. He has great hands. He has tremendous hands and runs tremendous routes. He’s all-around a heck of a player.”
As a junior, Gray ran for 3,151 yards and scored 45 touchdowns and helped lead Lausanne to its second straight Division II-AA championship. No team has ever won three straight state titles in Tennessee in that division.
“You love all your players, but you like some more than others because of their personality,” Locastro said. “Eric is really easy to love and be fond of because he’s such a fine, fine man.
“He’s not the only really good player on our team. We’re back-to-back state champs. We were the No. 1-ranked team in Memphis last year. We’ve got some talented kids on our team. But the thing I love about our group of guys; they’re all high-character. It’s more than being a good football player here. It’s developing the academic skill set. We want to be an extension of their moms and dad, and we don’t take that lightly.”
Gray also is used in the return game. He’s used as the deep player on kickoffs and sometimes returns punts.
“When we need him,” Locastro said. “He’s our best punt returner, but we want to keep him healthy. He is durable. We gave him the ball 43 times in the state title game and he had five touchdowns. He’s tough, he’s durable, but we’re trying to keep him as healthy as possible. We put him out there on kickoffs because we know we’d get short kicks.”
Locastro nearly went into the upcoming season without Gray, who seriously considered transferring to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. But Gray will be playing for Lausanne, after all.
“The thing about Eric, he’s a true competitor and he wants to be the best and be recognized as the best because he puts in the time and energy,” Locastro said. “IMG was something he needed to prove to himself and compete with the other running backs and shine in that venue. When he got there, he realized it was different than he thought. He missed Lausanne and missed his friends and when his mom got sick, he wanted to be home.”
Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh was Gray’s primary recruiter, but head coach Jim Harbaugh apparently closed the deal.
“I think at the end of the day, he had some great opportunities at a lot of schools, but coach Harbaugh took over his recruiting process at the end,” Locastro said. “He was the main contact and spent a lot of time with Eric and that was the main difference in the end.
“Eric is a relationship guy. I came here from an all-boys Catholic school with 900 boys and a program that had been playing since 1871. I was there 20 years and I came over and started football five years ago here. When Eric was coming out of eighth grade, he had no reason to come to Lausanne other than the fact we developed a relationship with him. We weren’t good my first two years. We didn’t have the tradition, we didn’t have a state championship, we didn’t have the wins, and we didn’t have the facilities. So Eric was a relationship guy, and Harbaugh won him over because of his personality. I think that’s the reason he went to Michigan.”
Gray chose Michigan over Alabama, Stanford, Penn State and many of the nation’s top programs, and said his official visit to Ann Arbor was a key component in his decision.
“(Things changed with Michigan) when I went on that official,” he told The Michigan Insider’s Sam Webb. “At first I was like, ‘Man I’m not going Michigan. They haven’t talked to me in a long time.’ But I decided to go on that official and it is the best thing I could have ever done.”
If cleared by Lausanne, Gray could be an early enrollee at Michigan next year.
“He wants to enroll early,” Locastro said. “I think Eric can step in as a true freshman and help Michigan. I think he does need to enroll early, get the terminology down, the schemes. Generally, I would say, I wouldn’t want a kid to leave early. But for him, I’m not so sure it wouldn’t be good for him.”