Gray provides long-range threat for Millbrook

By Brad Fauber

WINCHESTER — Tyler Gray’s journey as a kicker began during his eighth-grade year at Admiral Byrd Middle School back in 2010.

Gray, a soccer player since he was 5 years old, joined the school’s football team that year, and like many young kickers, Gray’s soccer background translated well on the gridiron.

“Our coach, who was Coach Brosig at the time … he wanted all the soccer players to come out on the field and see who could kick the furthest,” Gray, now a senior at Millbrook High School, recalled. “I’ve been playing soccer since I was 5 and during the competition I kicked the furthest.”

Gray’s kicking career took off from there.

He stuck with that specialist role when he entered high school at Millbrook, and following his freshman season, during which he handled all of the kicking duties for the Pioneers’ junior varsity quad, Gray opted to attend one of the many Kohl’s Professional Camps for kickers, punters and snappers held throughout the nation.

Under the guidance of camp director Jamie Kohl, a former college and professional place kicker, Gray was fed all of the information he needed to become an effective kicking specialist.

“Director Jamie Kohl taught me a lot of stuff, like a lot of background on kicking. He taught me the proper technique and how to strike the ball, so that got me a lot better,” Gray said.

The results were outstanding. In Gray’s sophomore season in 2012, his first at the varsity level, he connected on 8 of 10 field goal attempts, and his 46-yard field goal against Handley in Millbrook’s 27-24 win that season still stands out in his mind.

But no kick during his high school career remains as vivid as the two that he planted through the uprights in the Pioneers’ 34-33 win over visiting Harrisonburg in his fourth varsity game.

“That was probably the most critical game of my career,” Gray said. “There was five seconds left and it was a 37-yard field goal… Everyone was like, ‘Don’t be nervous. Don’t be nervous. Just focus everything out.’ As a kicker you’ve got to block everything out — all the sounds, the linemen on the opposite side screaming at you to miss it. I did my normal routine, three steps back, two steps over, kept my head down, drove through the ball and I ended up making it to put us into overtime. We scored a touchdown in overtime and I needed to make the extra point for the win and I ended up making it.”

Gray’s junior season last fall was less memorable, as the Pioneers struggled to a 2-8 record and Gray hit just 3 of 7 field goals (three kicks were blocked, Gray said, and another was the result of a bad snap). But Gray’s kicking ability continues to get better.

He is currently ranked 21st nationally in the Kohl’s Professional Camps rankings for the class of 2015, and he is the highest ranked Virginia player on that list.

Over the summer, Gray said he nailed a field goal attempt from 63 yards out on John Handley High School’s turf field, and he connected on a 48-yard attempt — his longest in a game situation — in Millbrook’s first preseason scrimmage of the season in early August.

“He is very skilled. … He’s very calm,” said Pioneers head coach Josh Haymore, who was a long snapper at James Madison University and coached specialists for a period during his time on JMU’s coaching staff following his playing career. “There’s a lot of kickers that when they go to kick, they’re not as smooth as what he does.”

Gray, who will handle all of the kicking responsibilities for Millbrook again this season, said he has learned to block everything out when attempting a field goal — fans, opposing players, anything that could be a potential distraction.

But the primary path to kicking success rests in the technique.

“You’ve got to keep your head down. … You keep you’re eye on the ball, and as you go into your three steps you put your hand up and then follow through,” Gray said. “Then you get the little hop-step at the end. You’ve got to make sure you keep your head down the whole time.

“You’ve also got to keep your plant foot directly to the field goal post so it goes straight.”

Gray’s ability has been a critical component of Millbrook’s kicking game, but his role is just a part of an intricate process that is required for a successful field goal attempt. It all begins with the snapper — senior Colin Benner will handle that role for the Pioneers this season — and a good chemistry with the holder is crucial to a place kicker.

Gray has that chemistry built up with teammate and best friend Chris Oates, who started serving as Gray’s holder during their freshman season. Oates didn’t serve as Millbrook’s holder last season, but the duo is back working together this fall.

Gray said he and Oates, along with Benner, were clocked with a release time of about 1.4 seconds in practice earlier this fall.

“That’s right at collegiate level,” Oates said.

Gray’s talent has drawn some interest from several colleges, including JMU, the University of Richmond and Liberty University, although he hasn’t received any offers yet.

“It’s been a good process so far,” Gray said. “Over the summer I went to all of their camps and I showed out pretty well. But we’ve just got to see what happens after the season.”