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USF's player and teacher
DL Allen Cray imparts advice to inexperienced Bulls. Then he shows how it's done on the field.
By GREG AUMAN
Published October 13, 2006
TAMPA - Allen Cray is the old veteran on a USF defensive line loaded with first-year starters and freshmen. But don't think his impact has been limited to being a mentor to the younger Bulls.
"I don't mind being put into that role," said Cray, a junior nose tackle who entered the season with 10 starts. "They come up to me to ask me certain things, how I play certain blocks. It's definitely good to be looked up to that way, to be able to help them."
The other seven defensive linemen on USF's depth chart had never started before this season, but Cray is leading the Bulls in more than experience. He has a team-best 3.5 sacks, the fourth most in the Big East and most among interior linemen.
"I think that's my weakness right now," said Cray, who had 11 sacks as a senior at Columbia High in Lake City, but only one in his first two seasons playing at USF. "I'm not a really strong pass rusher, but I'm definitely working to be one."
At 6 feet, 295 pounds, he's the Bulls' heaviest defensive lineman, so it's understandable that he takes pride in USF's run defense. Connecticut entered last weekend's game as the No. 6 running team in the country, and the Bulls held the Huskies to 60 rushing yards.
"That made me very happy, especially after what happened against Rutgers," said Cray, recalling sophomore Ray Rice rushing for 202 yards in the Knights' 22-20 victory. "North Carolina is going to test us again on the run. That's what you do to a small D-line. It's the first thing you should test: Can they play the run. But every week, we start the game plan with stopping the run."
The line is easily the least experienced part of USF's defense, but coach Jim Leavitt said he has been pleased with the leadership Cray has shown with the young unit.
"Allen, we know, is going to play hard, play as best he can," Leavitt said. "He's been kind of banged up this year, but he's out there, battling. I've been happy with Allen and how he's played."
For all his size, Cray continues to impress teammates with his burst off the line, something cornerback Mike Jenkins noticed back when they were redshirting in 2003.
"He's got a get-off like he's coming off the blocks," Jenkins said. "The first time I saw him do that, I knew he was special. I've never looked at Al like a run stopper or a pass stopper, just getting off the ball and getting in collisions with the offensive line."
As hard as he plays, Cray is as diligent in the classroom, where he's on pace to graduate in four years with a degree in chemistry next summer. What he wants to do with his degree? He's still working that out.
"I have no idea," Cray said. "I started out doing pre-med, thinking about med school, but I don't know. I've always been good at science, but most of my time away from the field is spent in the books, trying to get that done."
Cray is playing this season without fellow lineman Eric Thomas, a friend and teammate for eight seasons since the two were in eighth grade in Lake City. Thomas had to give up football last spring because of a persistent knee injury, but he continues to take classes at USF and is Cray's roommate.
Cray doesn't want to be seen as the elder statesman of the line, deferring that honor to Tavarious Robinson, a senior who has 53 career tackles but is taking a redshirt this season.
"He's my eyes on the sideline," Cray said. "Sometimes you don't see things yourself, and I'll come off and he'll say, 'They're downblocking you; they're crossing you,' that kind of thing. T-Rob has helped me out a lot."
The line has been hit hard by injuries, with fellow tackle Richard Clebert trying to play despite a torn groin muscle that has sidelined him the past three games. Sophomore Josh Julmiste, who can play end or tackle, returns this weekend after a six-game suspension, giving the unit a key contributor for the second half of the season.
"It's a task keeping healthy because we're an undersized defensive line," Cray said. "As the season goes, we definitely wear down, but the training staff is keeping us in good shape."
Cray is excited by the progress of the freshmen around him, including end Chris Robinson, who joins him as the only Bulls to have forced and recovered fumbles this season.
"I always had faith in our line," Cray said. "We're young, but I knew we had enough experience to do it."