JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Orel Gray wasn’t quite sure what to think of the changes, let alone if they would all work. When his coaches at University Christian came to the team before the season and mapped out a plan, the message was confusingly clear.
Trust the process.
The process meant a lot more responsibility for select players on UC, but it meant more work for Gray than anyone else. It paid off in an 11-2 season, a trip to the Class 1M state semifinals and one of the best all-around seasons in UC history for Gray, the All-News4JAX offensive player of the year.
To think that it all began with somewhat of a challenge and a bit of blind faith.
“As we get into season, we all moved around in different places. We were just like, ‘Coach, is this going to work?’ And he would be like, ‘Just trust the process.’ So, when we trusted the process, we was able to come out on teams that thought they would just come out and beat us,” Gray said.
“By what the coaches did, put us in the right position, we came out and beat teams that everybody thought that we was going to lose to, be down two touchdowns. But we trusted the process and it was a fun year.”
Fun for Gray and his UC teammates, but seldom fun for the teams who had the arduous task of trying to slow him down. Gray rushed for a 2,064 yards and 30 touchdowns, both area highs. Those totals nearly doubled Gray’s previous season-best (1,245, 17) during his sophomore season. Gray also led UC with four interceptions and a couple of pick-sixes.
The process at UC in 2022 meant shaking things up across the board, not something that happens often at a program with nine state championships, including three under coach David Penland III.
“Going into this year, we knew that he was going to be the guy that had to carry our team. And we’re going to put a lot of carries in his hands and expect a lot out of him and throw him on defense when we need him and put them on special teams,” Penland said. “And every time he was in the game, he made a made a play or ran a kickoff back or picked it off. I mean it was really awesome to watch him play this year.”
That meant taking three-year starting quarterback Desirrio Riles and putting him full-time on defense. Riles would get snaps at tight end, but the quarterback position went to sophomore Dwayne Stuckey. UC was planning to throw it more with Stuckey and let another sophomore, Jenoa Alford, get more involved at receiver. For that passing game to take off, it needed Gray to deliver a season he’d never been asked to deliver. That was a monster ask for a player who was coming off a tough season that was cut short by injury.
“Last year, I fractured my ribs. And it was hard when I wasn’t able to be on the field with my teammates,” Gray said. “So, I just knew I had to bounce back in some way.”
Gray bounced back and kept on bouncing.
He came to UC as largely a defensive back and a good one. Gray picked off seven passes as a freshman who gradually found his way into the offense. But the process had Gray as UC’s primary running back, and also finding other ways to contribute. That meant taking over kickoff and punt return duties, where he proved absolutely dynamic. Gray took four kickoffs back for touchdowns, two of those in the playoffs. He also had a punt return for a score.
Stuckey and Alford picked up the vertical pace on offense. Riles had a breakout season on defense, including a pick-six in the regional final against Trinity Christian.
The process worked.
“It’s fun to see the process of all this come to fruition his senior year, and how much work and just how good of a football player is on the field, and how much of a person he’s grown off the field,” Penland said. “That’s what I’m proud of. He’s a better person off the field than what he was when he got to UC and to see all that growth to what he is now, it’s awesome. We’re definitely going to miss him for sure.”
Pos., Player, School, Class
QB James Resar, Bishop Kenny, Jr.
One of the most accurate passers in the area. Completed 127 of 211 passes (1,992 yards) and 16 TDs. Rushed for more than 500 yards and added 6 TDs to lead Crusaders to a district title and first win over rival Bolles since 1977. Has committed to Iowa.
QB Riley Trujillo, Bartram Trail, Jr.
Grew up as an all-around player this season for the Bears. Passed for nearly 2,000 yards (15 TDs) and rushed for nearly 700 (5 TDs).
RB Laython Biddle, Bartram Trail, Jr.
Emerged as one of the area’s top backs during the Bears’ 12-1 year. Eclipsed the 1,500-yards rushing mark and scored a TD in all but one game. Finished with 29 rushing TDs and also hauled in a scoring pass.
RB TJ Lane, Middleburg, Sr.
Emerged as another dangerous Broncos back with a breakout season. Finished with 1,986 rushing yards on 218 carries (9.1 ypc), 18 TDs and helped lead Middleburg to the postseason.
RB Treyaun Webb, Trinity Christian, Sr.
Two-time All-News4JAX selection. Rushed for 1,117 yards on 147 carries (7.6 ypc) and 20 TDs for 11-1 Conquerors. A part of two state championship teams. Had 3,488 rushing yards in his career along with 48 total TDs. Signed with the University of Florida.
WR Taylor Bradshaw, Oakleaf, Sr.
Do-it-all player for the Knights. Had 47 catches for 834 yards and 9 TDs. Also had 3 INTs from his position in the secondary. Had 1,579 receiving yards, 17 TDs over final 2 seasons.
WR Zackary Drawdy, Yulee, Sr.
Fluid and, at 6-3, looks the part of a big-time receiver. Had 76 catches for 925 yards, 8 TDs. Finished his career with 170 catches, 2,297 yards and 22 TDs.
WR Jaime Ffrench, Mandarin, So.
Rising star has tools and the size (6-3, 180) to shine even brighter in his final two seasons. All-Gateway selection had 44 catches for 671 yards and 5 TDs and opened things up for teammate Kieren Jackson (11 TD catches) to have a huge season.
OL Brendan Black, Bolles, Sr.
Big left tackle (6-4, 300) who helped the Bulldogs return to the state semifinals. Iowa State commit.
OL Jake Guarnera, Ponte Vedra, Jr.
One of the area’s top recruits in the Class of 2024, he didn’t allow a sack and graded out at 96% this season.
OL Roderick Kearney, Orange Park, Sr.
Two-time first-team All-News4JAX selection and a player who drew more votes from coaches than any other OL.
OL Nate Politano, Bishop Kenny, Jr.
Tackle was a big part of Kenny’s district championship season. Helped block for QB James Resar and will be a major part of that returning nucleus in 2023.
OL Ethan Williams, Fleming Island, Sr.
Interior offensive lineman is a multiyear force on the Golden Eagles line. The 6-3, 285-pound player helped clear the way for FSU signee Sam Singleton. Signed with Georgia Southern.
TE Connor Cox, Bolles, Sr.
Big target (6-6, 230) who finished with 322 yards receiving on 30 catches, 3 TDs. Has signed with University of South Carolina.
ATH Orel Gray, University Christian, Sr.
All-News4JAX offensive player of the year. A three-time All-News4JAX second-team selection. Did so many things exceptionally that it feels like a slight to put him just as an RB. Rushed for 2,064 yards, 30 TDs. Had 184 receiving yards. Had 21 tackles, picked off 4 passes and took a couple back for TDs. Had 4 kickoff returns for TDs and took a punt back for a score. Had 4,199 career rushing yards, 62 TDs. On defense, finished with 16 career picks.
ATH Cam Smith, Baker County, Sr.
Like Gray, Smith did things beyond the backfield that make him dangerous beyond one position. Rushed for 1,653 yards, 16 TDs on 190 carries (8.7 ypc). Had 16 catches for 490 yards, four TDs). Had 17 tackles and an interception that he took back for a TD. Had 5,234 all-purpose yards, 47 TDs in his career.
ATH Marcelis Tate, Fletcher, Jr.
Senators QB took a major step forward this season. Led team with 709 rushing yards and added 8 TDs. Passed for 1,771 yards, 12 TDs (119 for 221).
K Ronald Dargjati, Creekside, Sr.
About as good as it gets for reliability. Hit all 51 PATs and went 16 of 20 on field goals with a long of 53.
Pos., Player, School, Class
QB Tramell Jones, Mandarin, So.
Rising star passed for 2,310 yards, 23 TDs and led Mustangs to district title. Was 161 for 277 passing (58% completion).
QB Chris Turner, Yulee, Sr.
Glut of good QBs means we squeezed three good ones on here. Breakout season for the Hornets. Passed for 2,226 yards, 25 TDs and completed 63% of his passes (206 for 327).
RB Jordan Bean, Sandalwood, Sr.
Polished off excellent career with 1,403 rushing yards on 167 carries (8.4 ypc) and 6 TDs. Scoring totals don’t reflect how good Bean was. Rushed for 2,843 yards in 2 seasons.
RB Devonte Lyons, St. Augustine, Jr.
Multi-year star for the Yellow Jackets. Rushed for 1,269 yards, 16 TDs. Has 2,272 rushing yards, 32 total TDs in his career.
RB Nicky Williams, Creekside, Jr.
One of the central figures in the best season in Creekside history. Rushed for 1,409 yards, 17 TDs. Added a couple receiving TDs.
WR Jenoa Alford, University Christian, So.
Helped unlock UC’s offensive potential by providing a big play wideout. Had 812 receiving yards, 12 TDs on 41 catches for Class 1M state semifinalist.
WR Miles Burris, Trinity Christian, Jr.
Breakout season for the underclassmen. Had 664 yards on 32 catches (20.8 ypc) and brought in 9 TDs.
WR Payton Dykas, Clay, Jr.
Bright spot for the Blue Devils this season. Had 1,001 receiving yards on 57 catches (17.6 ypc) and 14 TDs.
WR Anthony Vaglienti, Fletcher, Jr.
Big target for QB Marcelis Tate. Had 44 catches for 738 yards (16.8 ypc) and 8 TDs as Senators won district title and reached 3M state playoffs.
OL Quory Ambrose, Jackson, Jr.
All-Gateway selection for the Tigers. Had 71 pancake blocks and added 26 solo tackles on defense.
OL Cooper Fordham, Bolles, Sr.
Was a first-team All-News4JAX selection last season and was a consistent player on the line during his career. Signed with Louisiana.
OL Timothy Lawrence, Fleming Island, Sr.
Big offensive tackle (6-5, 285) also played tight end during his career and was a mainstay on the Golden Eagles line. Signed with University of South Florida.
OL Marcos Ramos, Bartram Trail, Sr.
Integral part of Bears line that helped pave the way for RB Laython Biddle and QB Riley Trujillo. Also played on the defensive side of the ball in his career.
TE Jye Thompson, Yulee, Sr.
One of the most productive at his position around. Had 455 yards on 33 catches (13.8 ypc) and hauled in 7 TDs.
K Liam Padron, Bartram Trail, Jr.
Handled kicking and punting chores for the Bears. Hit 11 of 15 field goals and nailed all but one of his PATs.
ATH Fred Gaines, Jackson, Sr.
Did a little bit of everything for the Tigers during his time there. Had 1,055 all-purpose yards, 10 TDs this season as Jackson went 8-3 and won a district title for the first time since 2009.
ATH Jayden Harris, Bishop Kenny, Sr.
Had 40 catches for 700 yards, 6 TDs as the team’s top wideout. On defense, turned in big play after big play. Had nearly 3 dozen tackles and led team with 4 interceptions and blocked a punt.
ATH Thomas Jackson, First Coast, Jr.
Spark for the Buccaneers, who reached the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Hauled in 9 TD passes from QB Rodney Tisdale Jr. Had 42 catches for 663 yards (15.8 ypc).
QB/P Blake Mays, Sr.
OL Zach Marshall, So.; WR Taylor Rhodes, Sr.
QB Brick Balcita, So.
RB Fareed Coleman, Fr.; QB Jalen Hitchens, Sr.
WR Jackson Burnett, Sr.; TE Michael Leonard, Sr.
WR Naeem Burroughs, Fr.; FB Jake Hogan, Jr.; WR Kaleb Lampkins, So.; RB Ty Neal, So.;
WR Chalil Cummings, Sr.; OL Jordan Daniels, Jr.; OL Jayden Luna, Sr.; QB/DB Jeremiah McKenzie, So.; RB Willie Pollard, Jr.
OL Bradley Warren, Sr.
WR Camden Frier, Jr.; QB Tyler Jefferson, Sr.; TE Aiden Phillips, So.
OL Jacob Akel, Sr.; QB Wilson Edwards, Sr.; WR Hampton Riedl, Sr.
ATH Emauri Hampton, Sr.
RB Tajon Nelms, Jr.
QB Rodney Tisdale Jr., Jr.
QB Cibastian Broughton, So.; OL Braden Cunningham, Jr.; RB Sam Singleton, Sr.
QB Clayton Philpot, Sr.; RB Najeeb Smith, Jr.
QB Lyle Bennett, Sr.; OL Ryland Hall, Jr.; RB: Braydon Holley, Jr.
RB Reginald Allen, Jr.
QB King Johnson, Jr.; OL Deryc Plazz, Jr.
RB Cartez Daniels, Jr.
OL Gavin Barton, WR Kieren Jackson, Sr.; RB Tiant Wyche, Jr.
WR/LB Cole Hash, Jr.
RB Christian Coleman, So.
OL Jaylen Booker, Jr.; OL Landen Padgett, Sr.
WR Maddox Spencer, So.; QB Marcus Stokes, Sr.
OL Jordan Mitchell, Sr.; RB Devin Outlaw, Sr.; OL Krishawn Sanders, Sr.; TE Isaiah Shevchook, Sr.; ATH Carlos Witherup, So.
RB JoJo Restall, Sr.
WR Ty’ran Bush, Sr.; OL Nolan Faircloth, Sr.
RB Darrell Sawyer III, Sr.
QB Ben Burk, So.; WR Wyatt Rogers, Sr.
ATH Roman Doles, Sr.; OL Solomon Thomas, So.
WR Kalvin Gilbert Jr., Sr.; RB Damontrio Glee, Sr.; OL Jordan Matthews, Jr.
WR Taeshaun Gelsey, So.; ATH Jamal Harvey, Jr.; ATH Devin Herring, Sr.
QB Locklan Hewlett, So.; WR Carl Jenkins Jr., So.; WR Trenton Jones, So.
OL Purnell Richardson, Sr.
QB Marquavious Owens, Jr.; QB Bronsen Tillotson, Sr.
RB Wendell Dean, Sr.
OL Tyler Cline, Jr.; QB Colin Hurley, So.; RB Darnell Rogers, Jr.
QB AJ Cortese, Sr.; ATH Daylyn Diston, Sr.; RB Rayvon Durant, Sr.
OL/DL Noah Clark, Sr.; QB Dwayne Stuckey, So.
OL Dante Watts, Sr.
WR Josiah Evans, Sr.