Why South Carolina thinks Torrian Gray is ‘best defensive backs coach in the world’

Shane Beamer isn’t exactly one to mince words.

The Gamecocks’ coach open and honest — perhaps almost too much, at times. That certainly doesn’t change when asked about his ex-Virginia Tech teammate and South Carolina defensive backs coach Torrian Gray.

“He’s the best defensive backs coach in the world,” Beamer said last week. “I have no doubt in my mind about that.”

Beamer, perhaps, isn’t that far off.

In most major college football programs, the secondary is split between two position coaches — usually a corners coach and a safeties coach. Not at South Carolina. Gray (and graduate assistant Donnie Both) handle a defensive backs room that includes 18 players this spring.

It’s worked out just fine.

“His energy is crazy, man,” cornerback O’Donnell Fortune said. “I’ve never had a DB coach that has energy like that. You’ve got to have that as a DB coach.”

Gray has done as good a job as anyone on South Carolina’s staff since it was assembled during the offseason that followed 2020 and Beamer’s hire. He transformed Jaylan Foster from a one-time walk-on and perceived weakness in the secondary to an All-American in one season. Corners Cam Smith and Darius Rush, too, evolved into dynamic playmakers on the edges during their two years under Gray’s guidance.

South Carolina’s secondary, though, has some legitimate questions heading into the offseason.

Smith and Rush are off to the NFL, likely to be taken in the first and third rounds, respectively. That leaves some combination of cornerbacks O’Donnell Fortune, Marcellas Dial, Isaiah Norris and Keenan Nelson, among others, to help fill those voids.

Fortune and Dial have played in varying featured roles at times over the past two seasons alongside Smith and Rush, but it’s not quite clear what will be expected of them in 2023. Fortune’s pick-six in the Gator Bowl loss to Notre Dame gave South Carolina life late in the contest and boosted his confidence heading into the offseason, he said.

Dial, too, lined up opposite Rush plenty during the 2022 season when Smith was used more as a nickel corner out of the slot (Smith played 196 of 591 snaps last year at slot corner, per Pro Football Focus). Given that, Dial played the third-most coverage snaps of any player on the team last year, per PFF.

“It’s amazing what having success in the Gator Bowl did for him,” Gray said of Fortune. “He came back. Academically, he’s doing off the charts. Football-wise, he’s been great. All the things in his life have been positive. We’re watching him mature before our eyes. We just hope we can keep O’Donnell in that realm, because right now he’s kind of taking off and keeping even keel.”

How Gray has become such an integral part of what South Carolina has done in the defensive backfield is up for interpretation. Players laud his ability to connect — that’s shown in his quick work with Foster, Smith and Rush and on the recruiting trail.

The Gamecocks signed nine defensive backs between their 2022 and 2023 classes. Four of those players (Keenan Nelson, Anthony Rose, Emory Floyd and Jalon Kilgore) were rated four-star prospects in the 247Sports Composite. That’s not to mention transitioning DQ Smith, a converted high school quarterback, and all-world prep linebacker Nick Emmanwori to safety.

“The thing about Coach Gray is that he has that special edge about him as a coach,” Emmanwori said. “He’s always fired up. He expects the best out of you. You have to bring your A-game. You don’t want to let a coach down like him or disappoint him.”

Glancing back at the whiteboard that runs the width of the room on Tuesday, Beamer jokes it often reminds him of the Russell Crowe classic “A Beautiful Mind” when he pops in on defensive back meetings. But where Crowe’s character is covering the board in the mathematical equations that evolved into game theory, Gray is teaching the intricacies of the South Carolina defense.

The Gamecocks will need that teaching as they break in what will be a relatively new, albeit semi-experienced secondary in 2023. Gray, who reportedly turned down interest from Florida State over the offseason, is back in the boat with a new contract that bumps his pay from $500,000 to $675,000 this fall and then, again, to $700,000 in 2024.

Such is the cost of keeping “the best defensive backs coach in the world.”