Leominster’s Gray steps into spotlight with Duke football team

LHS grad projected to start at tight end for Blue Devils

Duke tight end Noah Gray, of Leominster, breaks free from Wake Forest’s Chuck Wade Jr. during a Nov. 24 game in Durham, N.C. (Ben McKeown / AP)

Only one local athlete will be competing at the Football Bowl Subdivision Level, formerly Division 1-A, this season.

Leominster High School graduate Noah Gray is making a big impact on the Duke University football team. The junior has stepped up his game for the Blue Devils, and this fall he is Duke’s projected starter at the tight end position.

The high praise and honors are rolling in, as Gray was named to the John Mackey Award preseason watch list, an award that goes to the best tight end in the entire country.

 

Leominster High QB Noah Gray chats with head coach Dave Palazzi at the end of the first quarter during a Sept. 30, 2016, game against Wachusett Regional at Doyle Field in Leominster. (Sentinel & Enterprise file photo)

 

“I don’t think too much about preseason accolades,” Gray said. “That award doesn’t mean anything to me right now, but I’m honored that people thought about me. The only thing I care about is being with my teammates here at Duke, and winning games with them, too.”

Gray has made steady progress throughout his career. As a freshman in 2017 he played in all 13 games and caught five passes for 37 yards and two touchdowns. His highlight contest was a three-reception, 31-yard, one-touchdown game against North Carolina Central.

Last year, as a sophomore, he played in all 13 games, starting one against Pittsburgh. He caught 20 passes for 234 yards and one touchdown on the year. His lone TD reception came against Virginia Tech, and he piled up a season-high 48 receiving yards against Pittsburgh.

Dan Helm and Davis Koppenhaver were two senior mentors at the tight end position last year for Gray. The former Leominster High star learned a lot from their leadership and is looking to apply it to the upcoming season as he ascends to the starting role.

Helm, meanwhile, is currently fighting for a spot on the San Francisco 49ers’ roster.

“(Helm and Koppenhaver) were great mentors,” Gray said. “I wouldn’t want to go into any other program with any other group of guys, if I’m being completely honest. Those guys helped me tremendously through my development on the football field, and off the field in the classroom. I give a lot of credit for what I’ve been able to accomplish here to them.”

With the depature of Daniel Jones to the New York Giants to be the protégé for Eli Manning, Duke will rely on redshirt senior quarterback Quentin Harris. Harris passed for 437 yards as a backup last season with seven touchdowns and one interception.

“I don’t think anything changes with the new quarterback,” Gray said. “Quentin (Harris) has been here for four years and has been through the process and understands what all of the coaches want from us. He’s a tremendous leader, and I don’t think anything is going to change with just a few different guys on the field.”

The Duke defense returns a lot of starters, while the offense is a little greener. Duke lost much of its receiving corps and tight ends with major experience, but that just creates more opportunity for Gray and the other new starters to make that much more of an impact.

“On defense we have a lot of strong, proven guys who have taken a lot of snaps,” Gray said. “On offense there are a lot of guys who will have to step up, and I think they will be able to step up.”

Tight end is a dual-purpose position, serving as both a blocker and a receiver. For Gray, it doesn’t matter which he does more, as long as he can contribute to the team’s success.

“I try to do as much as possible in both aspects of the game,” Gray said. “I don’t focus on whether I’m a better blocker or receiver; I think at this level everyone has room for improvement. That’s what I’m trying to do with my teammates.”

Duke and Gray don’t have to worry about a lack of intensity surrounding their first game of the season, as the Blue Devils open up with the University of Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta, Georgia. The game will be broadcast nationally on ABC at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 31.

Another marquee non-conference tilt follows later in the fall, when Duke hosts Notre Dame on Nov. 9. Important ACC contests include an early road trip to Virginia Tech, and playing host to Syracuse and then Miami in the season finale.

“Of all the games I dreamt of as a child, I never thought I’d be in a position like this to play Alabama on a big-time stage like that,” Gray said. “I feel that it is good, and I feel like the team as a whole has a good mindset about it. I’m thrilled.”

The Coastal Division of the ACC is wide open compared to the Atlantic, which superpower Clemson dominates. Because of the parity, Duke might have a good chance to make some noise. Gray isn’t looking down the road, instead choosing to focus on each contest as it arrives.

“I couldn’t tell you a prediction, but we go out there and take it one game at a time,” Gray said. “We’ve got to look toward Alabama, and then take the next game after that. It depends on how well we take every game and the position we can ultimately put ourselves in.”

Although Gray has moved on to a prestigious ACC school, competing at a high level of college football, he stays true to his roots and is grateful for the experience and community in Leominster.

“I’ll always remember Leominster and playing football there,” Gray said. “High school football was fantastic and I had great time playing under coach (Dave) Palazzi and with my teammates there. As a community, everyone loved each other and supports each other.

“Those guys support me and I support them in whatever they do. I’m blessed to be in the position I am in, but I wouldn’t have gotten here without every single one of those people back home.”