Geoff Gray is looking to register a rare double.
On Saturday, he’ll become the first Manitoba Bisons offensive lineman to participate in the East-West Shrine game, U.S. college football’s longest-running all-star contest, at Tropicana Field. The school has sent four other players to the game but all were defensive linemen with three â€” Israel Idonije, Evan Gill and David Onyemata â€” going on to play professionally.
Following a similar path would make the six-foot-six, 310-pound Gray the first Bisons offensive lineman to play professionally after appearing in the East-West Shrine game. The 22-year-old Winnipeg native would appear to be a solid bet, having garnered NFL interest this week in St. Petersburg, Fla., after finishing the season as the CFL scouting bureau’s fifth-ranked prospect for this year’s draft.
“It all just depends,” Gray said via telephone from Florida. “I don’t really have a whole lot of control over it.
“I just want to show scouts through this that I’m improving . . . that’s what I control.”
Gray will play on the West team that’s coached by George Edwards, the Minnesota Vikings defensive co-ordinator. Antony Auclair, a tight end with Vanier Cup-champion Laval, will suit up for the East squad headed up by Brentson Buckner, an Arizona Cardinals assistant coach.
The six-foot-six, 254-pound Auclair, of Notre-Dame-des-Pins, Que., is the second-ranked prospect for this year’s CFL draft.
Gray was a Canadian university first-team all-star as well as a Canada West all-star and its top lineman this year. Manitoba’s offence averaged 34.5 points, 487.1 total yards and 333.1 yards passing per game.
Gray has also been durable at Manitoba, having never missed a game. He’s started 30-of-32 regular-season contests plus six playoff encounters and played both guard and tackle over his collegiate career.
Gray also had to show this week he can adapt to American football. He said the extra down and no yard off the ball have been the least of his challenges in practice.
“I don’t have a lot of experience in the American style of offence,” Gray said. “It’s one thing to know your assignment on paper but to then actually go and have a feel for the right angle and stuff like that takes time.
“The defence is responding to what the offence is doing and the offence is doing something different than what I’m used to. But I got better as the week went on, which is what I was looking for.”
Gray’s daily routine also included meeting with NFL officials and estimates he spoke to representatives of 15 different teams.
“There definitely are a few who were unsure of where you are in Canada while others had an idea about it,” Gray said. “I think we’ve got more recognition since Dave went through all this last year.”
The six-foot-three, 300-pound Onyemata attracted plenty of NFL interest last year. Seventeen clubs attended his pro day at Manitoba before the New Orleans Saints took Canadian university’s top lineman in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, making him the first Bisons player ever selected.
Ideally, Gray would like to earn an NFL shot and said he hasn’t felt overwhelmed physically this week going up against his American counterparts.
“I don’t feel in any way I’m athletically outmatched,” he said. “I think I have strength and power and play with a good body position and low pads for someone my height.
“I need more experience in American football and to improve some little technical issues that will come with time and experience. I feel good physically and like I fit there.”
Gray has simple goals for Saturday’s game.
“I’d like to just be able to be comfortable with what I’m doing and play fast,” he said. “I’d like to relax and go at it and see what happens and not be afraid to make mistakes.”
And that includes remembering he’s playing four-down football and not the Canadian game.
“We’ll see about the four downs in the game when I’m tired and start running off on second down,” Gray said with a chuckle. “But I haven’t had trouble with the downs yet.
“This has been a great experience, for sure. Going into last weekend some scouts weren’t necessarily too sure about what I could do but I definitely got more interest after practice Monday and as the week went on.”
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press