Bulked-up Gray challenging for A&M starting RB job

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- There's his new body, rippled with muscles and more than 20 pounds heavier than last season.

A year of dedicated work with the Aggies' strength staff has emboldened Cyrus Gray's confidence.

But as much as anything else, the Texas A&M sophomore running back said the total makeover of his running style came after he took a critical look at his freshman season and determined specific areas that needed to be enhanced.

"I really made a major effort this summer to change my running style," Gray said. "I watched a lot of film and after last season I saw how I wasn't decisive on my cuts. I've changed and I want to run downhill on every play. It's been a mindset I've had at every practice this season."

That new bruising attitude has made him one of the biggest surprises in Texas A&M's preseason practice so far. Gray has emerged as a definite challenger for a starting position for the Aggies' Sept. 5 opener against New Mexico.

Gray, who played at 182 pounds last season, was more of a scatback who tried to avoid defenders because of his lack of bulk as a freshman.

But as he now weighs more than 200 pounds, Gray has developed confidence that he can attack tacklers and blast through holes and tacklers rather than around them.

"Cyrus is a totally different runner this year than last year," Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman said. "He was a little bit hesitant and maybe didn't read his holes as well. This year he has not made a bad read or cut any time he has touched the ball."

"I keep waiting for that first time he makes a bad read so I can coach him, but I haven't been able to say anything to him yet. I guess the good ones are the ones you don't have to coach much."

Gray rushed for 363 yards on 75 carries and averaged 4.8 yards per carry as a freshman. He was one of the few bright spots of the Aggies' rushing game that was expected to be a team strength with the return of proven ball-carriers like Jorvorskie Lane and Michael Goodson.

But instead, the Aggies sputtered with their experienced backs and a struggling offensive line. They finished 114th nationally in rushing, last in the Big 12 and ahead of only five other teams nationally.

Gray was one of the few bright spots late in the season, sparking late victories over Iowa State and Colorado by running for team-high totals in both victories - A&M's final triumphs of the 2008 season.

The Aggies have vowed to be more physical this season, not only in the backfield but also across the offensive front. That growth will be critical as the Aggies attempt to avoid the pitfalls of last season's 4-8 team that finished tied for last place in the Big 12 South with Baylor.

"In order for us to have any kind of success, we're going to have to run the ball much better than we did last season," Sherman told the San Antonio Express-News earlier in training camp.

Gray has been involved in a continuing battle for playing time with heralded freshman running back Christine Michael and sophomore Bradley Stephens, who have both shown flashes as potential contenders for playing time in the Aggies' backfield.

That competition has helped spur Gray's recent dramatic surge.

"Our running back corps wants to challenge everybody every day in practice," Gray said. "There's competition and it makes us all better."

That growth is a big reason why Gray believes the Aggies will be better than the naysayers who are predicting they are doomed to finish in the South cellar again this season.

"We're going to shock some people," Gray said. "There's no doubt in my mind about that."