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Utah State football: Gray looking forward to return to Knoxville

By Jeff Hunter

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 26 2014 8:30 p.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, Aug. 27 2014 6:34 a.m. MDT

USU head coach Matt Wells as Utah State and Wyoming play Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013 in Logan. USU head coach Matt Wells said of Gray. "It will be his first start as a Utah State Aggie," Wells said of cornerback Daniel Gray, who transferred to Utah State from Tennessee, the Aggies' Week 1 opponent. "I’m sure there will be mixed emotions for him going in. He needs to be able to control those and play each snap and move on and have success."

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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LOGAN — These days, Daniel Gray is all about Aggie blue. However, it wasn't long ago that the sophomore cornerback was sporting an awful lot of orange.

A Florida native, Gray signed with Tennessee out of high school and started one game with the Volunteers in 2012. But shortly after Butch Jones took over the UT program, Gray decided to play elsewhere and just so happened to end up at Utah State with former prep teammates and friends JoJo Natson and Travis Reynolds.

Gray, who redshirted during the 2013 season, says he has no idea how it ended up that his first game as an Aggie will be back in Knoxville at 102,455-seat Neyland Stadium.

"I don't know how that happened, man," Gray said. "What a coincidence. But I was really pumped when I found out. You go from one program to another, and then you end up playing them in your first game back."

After tweaking his left knee in USU's first scrimmage of the fall, Gray bounced back to establish himself for a secondary that lost all of its starting cornerbacks and a lot of experienced DBs from last year. “He’s played really well in camp," USU head coach Matt Wells said of Gray. "It will be his first start as a Utah State Aggie. I’m sure there will be mixed emotions for him going in. He needs to be able to control those and play each snap and move on and have success. He better have a short mentality at cornerback in any game. I’m sure he’ll have some mixed emotions, but he’s played well the last couple weeks of training camp. He’s known since the minute he walked in here that this was the opening game.”

STEWING IT OVER: At the end of Tuesday's practice, the Aggies were treated to a visit and an inspirational message from Stew Morrill. The winningest head basketball coach in USU history said it was the first time in 17 years in Logan that he had been invited to a football practice, and he used the opportunity to share some wit and wisdom with the gridiron Aggies.

"You know what I found interesting is their nickname. Volunteers, right?" Morrill said of Sunday's opponent. "Well, this is the way I feel. When they scheduled Utah State, baby, they volunteered to lose!"

Wells said his admiration for Morrill goes back to being a USU alum and watching on TV as Morrill coached the Aggies in conference and NCAA tournaments.

"I've got a lot of respect for Coach Morrill and the program that he runs and the success that he's had, and basically I just wanted him to say in his own words some of the characteristics of those teams that were really special," Wells said. "You heard him talk about ’em: of leadership, of no entitlement, of having fun and being an everyday guy. That's what I want our guys to always be about; we want our program to be that way."

A standout offensive and defensive lineman at Provo High School, Morrill was recruited by several football programs, including Texas and Purdue. He also had an offer from Brigham Young to play both football and basketball, but the Cougars suggested that they'd want him to eventually give up hoops. So, Morrill opted instead to play basketball at Ricks College, and later Gonzaga, where he ended up getting his first job as a coach.

SOUTHEASTERN BLUES: It probably comes as no surprise that Utah State, like a lot of programs around the country, historically hasn't fared too well against the SEC. Heading into Sunday's game, the Aggies are 1-16 all-time against SEC teams, the lone win coming against perennial also-ran Kentucky. Utah State beat the Wildcats 35-6 on Oct. 10, 1970, in Lexington.

"They’ve seen plenty of SEC games on TV and heard about them, so it’s pretty neat," Wells said of his players. "Not lost is the fact that Utah State has only had one win against an SEC team, and that was before I was born. We understand what kind of challenge we’re going up against. Knowing that, we’ll prepare to play our very best.”

The last time USU opened the season against an SEC school, the Aggies, under the guidance of former head coach Gary Andersen and freshman quarterback Chuckie Keeton, nearly upended defending national champion Auburn before falling 42-38. However, Utah State lost at Alabama, 48-17, to kick off its 2004 campaign, and fell by a 38-17 margin at Georgia in the first game of the 1999 season.

ANY GIVEN SUNDAY: The game at Tennessee will mark the first time the USU football program has ever played a game on Sunday … on this continent.

Surprisingly enough, the Aggies have actually played on a Sunday three times before — but all of them were in Japan.

In 1971, Utah State played a pair of games against two different Japanese all-star squads on consecutive Sundays on Dec. 19 and 26. And on Sept. 3, 1978, Utah State and Idaho State — normally separated by just 95 miles — traveled about 5,500 miles to do battle in Osaka. The Aggies beat the Bengals 10-0.

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