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JMU Football Notebook: Millbrook grad Gray comes up big for Dukes in semis

JMU's Tyler Gray (45) makes a kick in the first half of the Dukes' 27-17 victory over North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals on Friday. Gray hit a game-winning 45-yard field goal in the game. Courtesy photo/JMU Athletics Communications

HARRISONBURG – James Madison University sophomore kicker Tyler Gray hasn’t had the easiest of seasons, but the 2015 Millbrook graduate came through when his team needed it the most last week.

Gray kicked a career-long 45-yard field goal to put JMU on top for good in its 27-17 victory over five-time defending Football Championship Subdivision champion North Dakota State in Friday’s FCS semifinals. Gray had missed from 42 yards early in the game before hitting the 45-yarder.

“I thought he demonstrated as much as anything his growth and maturity as a place kicker in a big-time environment,” JMU head coach Mike Houston said Tuesday in his weekly press conference. “He has the one hit the upright there early in the game, which, a lot of guys, that would get in their heads, they’d be done for the night. But you look at him come off the field – he was fine – and you knew right then that he was going to be OK.”

Gray struggled early in the season, which Houston said was normal for a first-year starter. Gray is 14-for-21 on field-goal attempts and 86-for-88 on extra points.

Gray had not made a kick from the 40-49-yard range all season (0-for-4) before hitting the game-winner last week.

“The score is tied at 17, we desperately needed to get some momentum back, and then he hits a 45-yarder, which to me is probably on the outside fringe of his range, but that’s a special kick right there,” Houston said. “And he (had) plenty to spare. It was probably going to be good from 50.”

Houston said he’s been hard on Gray, but the kicker has handled it well.

“I have a strange relationship with kickers. I’m not very nice to them sometimes,” Houston said. “I warned him of that back in the spring. He’s been called several things and he’s had hats thrown at him and stuff like that. But my whole thing with them is they’ve got to get to where nothing fazes them. You have to treat them like crap, really, when they’re young and they get to where they’re just so immune to anything outside of their box.

“… He’s a guy that has been tireless in his work ethic to really perfect his craft. And we’ve seen that improvement throughout the year.”

Seven Dukes suspended: JMU suspended seven players indefinitely before their game with North Dakota State.

“We have very high expectations in terms of standards of conduct for our student-athletes and our football program and how they represent James Madison University,” Houston said in a press release Tuesday. “Unfortunately, we have a few student-athletes who have not met those standards and we will hold them accountable. They did not compete against North Dakota State and have been suspended indefinitely.”

Houston was asked at Tuesday’s press conference if he expected any of the seven suspended players to be back for the championship game against Youngstown State University on Jan. 7 in Frisco Texas and he said “no.”

Houston and the school said they will have no further comment on the suspensions.

Houston did say that he anticipates having redshirt senior center Kyle Rigney back. Rigney left the North Dakota State game with an injury and was replaced by Mac Patrick.

Future bright spot: Georgia Tech’s top running back, Marcus Marshall announced last week that he was transferring to JMU in 2017.

Marshall led the Yellow Jackets with 624 yards rushing and four touchdowns. He started six games and played in all 11 for Georgia Tech.

Houston said that Marshall has already enrolled in classes and has all his paperwork done. He said Marshall will start classes in January and practice with the team this spring.

Marshall’s father played for JMU from 1982-86 and was inducted into the JMU sports Hall of Fame in 2013. Marcus Marshall’s brother, Keith, was a standout running back at the University of Georgia, and is currently a member of the Washington Redskins. Keith Marshall suffered an injury early this season and is on the injured reserve for the Redskins.

“We’re excited to welcome him to the family,” Houston said. “We had he and his family here for the game against Sam Houston State. His dad, Warren, I’m sure all of our alumni know him very, very well. It was great to get the opportunity to spend some time with him and Marcus’ mom.”

Marshall played two years for the Yellow Jackets, and will have two years of eligibility for JMU. Because Marshall is transferring from a Football Bowl Subdivision school to an FCS school he is eligible to play starting next season.

JMU starting running back Khalid Abdullah is a senior, but all of the other running backs are expected to return next season.

Houston said that Marshall enjoyed his visit with the school a few weeks ago.

“Marcus felt very at home here,” Houston said. “He really meshed with our players, and certainly he meshed with (running backs) coach De’Rail Sims and myself and (offensive coordinator Donnie) Kirkpatrick. And we’re very, very excited to add him to the roster moving forward.”

Contact staff writer Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com.