Rookie running back Eric Gray is being given an opportunity to be the kick returner for the New York Giants.
The fifth-round draft pick from Oklahoma has been the primary returner on kickoffs and punts since training camp opened last month and he handled all but one in the Giants’ 21-16 loss to the Detroit Lions in the preseason opener on Friday.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Gray said Monday after practice. “You know, any opportunity that you get, you’ve got to take advantage of. So me being able to get to do those returns in a game is a big opportunity to change field position and help the team.”
Statistically, Gray didn’t put up big numbers against the Lions. He returned two punts for a total of 8 yards and averaged 20.7 yards on three kickoff returns. That number is misleading because the 23-year-old had a 36-yard return in the first half nullified by a holding penalty.
“That was unfortunate, but it was good, you know, to be able to get out there and do that,” Gray said. “You get a feel for kickoff return in the NFL. So it was good.”
Gray did not do much returning in his four seasons in college, the first two at Tennessee and the final two with the Sooners. He had seven punt returns and four kickoff returns.
But the Giants feel he can run. His senior season at Oklahoma was impressive. He ran for 1,366 yards and scored 11 touchdowns and caught 33 passes for 229 yards.
“No matter what round I went, it’s going to be a chip on my shoulder no matter what,” he said. “I just wanted to get to a team. I don’t want to be the guy that they always say you got to prove everybody else wrong. I just wanted to prove the Giants right.”
Gray, who played quarterback as a youngster, comes from a football family. His father, Eric, played at Tennessee State, and his uncle, Maurice Hall, played at Ohio State. When he got to high school, Gray switched to running back and his position coach was his father.
“He started when I was young, just grooming me for that position,” Gray said. “I was glad he got the running backs job because, you know, there’s nobody better to teach you because he knows you in and out.”
With Saquon Barkley returning off a Pro Bowl season and veteran Matt Breida as his backup, Gray may not get many carries. That’s why his role in the return game is so important.
Gray noted that NFL kickers have stronger legs than college kickers and know how to keep the ball away from returners.
On kickoffs, Gray feels a returner has less than two seconds to make a decision on what to do. That includes seeing the kick, noticing how quickly the coverage team is closing and then deciding. If he is going forward, there is a chance to return it. Retreating rules that out.
There also is the unexpected. Detroit pooched a kick and that nearly led to a recovery when the Giants reacted slowly. He also had to dive to fair catch a punt.
The Giants have about a month to decide whether Gray gets to keep the job. If not, receivers Jaydon Mickens and Kalil Pimpleton and cornerback Darnay Holmes are waiting.
NOTES: While still in the concussion protocol, second-year right tackle Evan Neal did some drills in a no-contact red jersey. Matt Peart played his position in team drills. … RB Gary Brightwell, WR Collin Johnson, OL Devery Hamilton and Tyre Phillips, DL Ryder Anderson, LB Cam Brown and CB Nick McCloud did not practice. … DT D.J. Davidson (knee) was taken off the PUP list. … S Dane Belton intercepted Daniel Jones’ pass in the two-minute drill. He also had pick in the preseason game.