July 11, 2017 6:40:18 PM
HOOVER, Ala. -- As he does with every soon-to-be senior, Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen sat down with wide receiver Donald Gray in his office. These meetings always come in January and they always carry the same question.
"I say to them, 'What do you see in your football career? Because right now, it has less than 12 months,'" Mullen said. "If you'd like it to extend beyond that 12-month period, you're going to have to do something special. You're going to have to really be special to take your game to the next level."
Immediately thereafter, Gray embarked on an offseason unlike any other he's had at MSU. With that under his belt, Gray was heralded as a player of importance at Southeastern Conference Media Days Tuesday.
"Donald, in that meeting, took that very seriously," Mullen said. "Very rarely does a day go by that I don't look out the window and see him catching on the JUGS (machine), working on running routes, doing different things. He's one of the first guys in the building and one of the last to leave every single day, working to make sure he's covered every stone to make himself the best player he can be for the coming season."
Gray's physical talents, to a certain extent, have been proven. As a junior, while serving as the No. 2 threat behind Fred Ross, Gray caught 41 passes for 709 yards and five touchdowns. Gray is also a candidate to replace Ross as MSU's punt returner, having done it twice last fall. Gray said he, "got a lot of reps," at the position in the spring and is very willing to do it full-time this season.
Even if Gray does what he is expected to do and leads MSU in such categories, Mullen has challenged him to make widen his scope of what's possible.
"They're not just going to take the best receiver off of every team; they want the best receiver in the Southeastern Conference. Don't just compare yourself to the guys on our roster," Mullen said, "compare yourself to the rest of the conference, compare yourself to the rest of the country, compare yourself to people that have already established that they are going to go play beyond the next 12 months.
"You better become desperate every single day in how hard you work."
Mullen's suggestions for Gray don't stay on field. For the first time, Gray has to fill a vocal role in the meeting room.
"I'm still trying to find new ways to get better, find ways to be more vocal, find new ways to be different," Gray said. "I wanted to be in the back and let the work speak for itself, but there's no better feeling than feeling comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. I had to take that step just to prove to Coach Mullen that I was willing to take that role and be the leader."
Gray said he and running back Aeris Williams -- another player thrust into a leadership role within his position group -- have talked daily about their new situations. Offensive lineman Martinas Rankin, asked to do the same in the spring, can see the difference.
"He gets on the guys," Rankin said, "he cheers us on.
"He's always had a great attitude about football."
In a way, Mullen's talk with Gray in January was a challenge -- and one he's reacted to as well as possible. If it was a challenge, Gray didn't see it as one.
"I took away from it somebody caring," Gray said. "It's unbelievable that a coach can relate to you that much and also encourage you every day. I thank him for it every day."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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