MarQueis Gray has rushed, cuaght and passed for touchdowns during his Minnesota career.
On a Golden Gopher football game day, it would be tough to find a section of TCF Bank Stadium without fans wearing No. 5 jerseys for MarQueis Gray.
"It's like I'm a fan out there watching when he plays, to see what he's going to do next," wide receiver and fellow senior Brandon Green said.
Gray has excited teammates and fans alike with his playmaking ability. Throughout his Gopher career, his coaches have found him too talented to keep off the field. But the road Gray travels has taken many twists and turns. At first positional depth, and now injuries, have made it more difficult for him to stay in the game. His career has been a long journey, and the route is changing constantly.
The future looked bright when Gray enrolled at Minnesota in 2008 as one of the nation's top-ranked dual-threat quarterback prospects out of Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. Then an early obstacle appeared in his path. After an entire summer of workouts on campus, Gray found out that the NCAA was questioning his ACT score and he would need to take it again to become eligible. This news hurt, but he did not let it keep him down for long. It was still his goal to wear the Maroon and Gold on the gridiron.
"I fell in love with the school, the stadium, the people. ...I still had in my mind that this was my home," he said. "I felt like this was where my heart was."
Gray moved back to Indianapolis during the fall, got a job, studied to retake the ACT, and worked out with his old high school team. He enrolled at Minnesota again in January 2009 and re-joined the football team.
More challenges awaited him. Starting quarterback Adam Weber had two years of eligibility left when Gray arrived. Still, then-coach Tim Brewster felt that Gray had too much talent to keep on the bench.
So Gray took another detour--a more pleasant one this time that allowed him to stay in the action. For his first two seasons, Gray spent more time at wide receiver than his primary position.
"I have older brothers who played receiver and corner, so when we were in the backyard, I got to switch around," he said. "But I never thought I'd play receiver in an actual college game or any type of game. Either way, I got a chance to be on the field, and I was happy with it."
Gray had success as a receiver, starting in seven games and hauling in 42 catches, including five touchdowns, as a sophomore. He had chances to take a few snaps, too.
Gray's time to take over the huddle finally came in 2011. Due to Minnesota's coaching change, this was no ordinary transition. Jerry Kill's staff and the Gopher players had to get used to each other and implement a new system. But the new head coach already knew enough about Gray to feel good about his future as the starter.
"We've had a lot of confidence in him from the day I walked in the door," Kill said. "He's accepted coaching, he's absorbed information, and he's done what we've asked him to do."
Seeing his name at the top of the quarterback depth chart validated Gray's dedication and decision to stick with Minnesota.
"It was something I worked for since I'd been here," he said. "To actually get that shot was an eye opener and it kept me hungry to not give up that spot."
For Gray, regaining his normal throwing motion was the most difficult part of transitioning back from wide receiver. The quarterback part of his mind--wanting to lead and to know what everyone else on the field is doing--had never switched off.
It still was not easy street for Gray. He had to learn a new offense for the third time in his career, and he was now the signal caller on a full-time basis.
Gray grew into the role of starting quarterback as his junior season progressed. As he became more comfortable, he put together some impressive performances. He set the school's single-season (966) and single-game (174) records for rushing yards by a quarterback. He threw for a career-best 295 yards and three touchdown passes at Michigan State in November.
After last season, Gray could say that, during his career, he had posted 100-yard games in all three offensive categories: receiving, rushing, and passing.
"It'd be even better if I got to do all that in one game," Gray said. "That's a good stat to have, but the only thing that really matters is wins and losses. This year I'm trying to improve in the winning category."
Entering his senior season in 2012, Gray's path looked straighter than ever before. For the first time in his four years, he did not have to learn a whole new offense, and he now had a year as the starting quarterback under his belt.
Because he wanted to improve in the winning category, Gray knew he could not set the cruise control for the final leg of his college football journey. In addition to working on the technical aspects of the game, he also improved his vocal leadership.
"I'm not usually a guy to do much speaking or trying to hype up the guys," Gray said. "But I took that role on this summer once spring ball started. It's been a good job for me so far."
His goofy personality has always helped teammates feel welcome. Sophomore Marcus Jones said that Gray helped make his transition to college easier last year.
"He does a great job helping the freshmen, joking around with them, making sure they're comfortable here at the university and making sure they want to be here," Jones said.
Gray still keeps a positive, loose vibe on the sidelines, but he has also learned how to take charge and how to talk his teammates through game situations. One of his roles as a senior leader is to help ready the younger quarterbacks for when their time comes.
Unfortunately for Gray, a nagging injury has necessitated a youth takeover already. An ankle sprain forced him out of the Gophers' win against Western Michigan. Sophomore Max Shortell stepped in during the second quarter and led Minnesota to victory, while Gray watched on crutches from the sidelines.
Gray returned to the field a few games later, coming off the bench against Northwestern. He caught one pass, threw several of his own, and ran for a 25-yard touchdown before reinjuring his ankle. Gray was back again at Wisconsin, but played only at receiver.
"It's painful not being out there, not being 100 percent like I was in the first game," he said. "But that's the game of football. I have to keep doing my rehab and hopefully continue to get better."
Meanwhile, Kill's decision to start Philip Nelson against Wisconsin seems to have determined Gray's role for the rest of the year. Now that the opportunity to redshirt Nelson is gone, the true freshman will likely start the remaining games. Gray may still take some snaps, but wide receiver will once again be his main focus. Despite his love for the quarterback position, this change could be a blessing in disguise. The Gopher receiving corps has been plagued by injuries lately. Plus, many believe that playing receiver gives Gray the best shot at playing professionally.
"Anywhere I have a chance to play NFL games, that's the thing I'm going to do," he said. "I have a family to look after, and if I'm a receiver at the next level, then that's what I'm going to play."
His aforementioned family has been a constant through all the ups and downs on the gridiron. Gray's fiancée, step-daughter, and 11-month-old twin sons have added another dimension to his life.
"I've grown as a leader, a brother to my teammates, a father to my kids at home, and just overall being a more mature player and a father each year I've been up here," he said.
Even though he is not currently the starting quarterback, Gray can still be that same mature leader. He can still give pointers to Nelson. He can still wow fans with great plays as a receiver.
Gray is on the final leg of his college journey. Future stops, possibly including the NFL, have yet to be determined. Wherever his road takes him from here, Gray will go there knowing that he did whatever his team needed, and that his family and teammates will always have his back.