BEREA: Versatility that led to offensive creativity proved to be MarQueis Gray’s calling card as a rookie with the Browns.
Signed by the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent from the University of Minnesota and later claimed off waivers by the Browns a week before the season opener, Gray converted from a college quarterback to an NFL tight end last year.
But now the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Gray will need to adapt again because the Browns’ new coaching staff is looking to moving him to fullback on a more permanent basis.
Gray worked mostly with the starters in organized team activities this past week. His move to fullback followed the team’s release of a traditional lead blocker, Chris Pressley, just a month after it signed the former member of the Cincinnati Bengals and veteran of four NFL seasons.
Although Gray served primarily as a tight end last season, he and other players at the position were occasionally used at fullback.
“They used to have me play tight end and fullback all together,” Gray said of last season during a post-practice interview last Tuesday. “Now [recently] they told me to start focusing a little bit more on fullback throughout the finish of this camp just to get more reps.”
So there will be adjustments for Gray, who said he knew he would receive a shot at the starting job, allowing him to mentally prepare for the opportunity with Pressley’s release.
“One thing I am lacking is just the size,” Gray said. “Quickness is what I’m bringing more to the fullback position.”
New Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan employs a system predicated on the use of two tight ends and zone blocking, so Gray could play a significant part.
“Once you’re in there, you have a big role in the offense,” Gray said. “So you have to know your assignments and be able to help the team.”
He’s likely to be required to block more should he remain in the starting fullback role. He will have to make adjustments for that. Bulking up through weight lifting, he said, is likely one of them.
“[I’m] just overall getting used to the blocking,” Gray said. “[I’m] coming from quarterback to tight end to fullback now and forcing myself to go in there and lay the wood on the other guys.”
Browns coach Mike Pettine said Gray shouldn’t have major issues because zone blocking relies primarily on leverage as opposed to pure strength.
“He’s a guy that I think in the zone scheme you don’t have to be that downhill, thumper fullback where it’s block down, go through, lead up on the linebacker where you’re more getting on guys and getting on edges and running your feet,” Pettine said. “The style of blocking is very similar to what he’s doing as a tight end anyway. I think that it’s a much easier transition for him here.”
How the change affects Gray’s role as a ball-carrier and receiver remains to be seen, but he’s confident it will expand. Whether that includes taking direct snaps like he did occasionally in the Wildcat formation last season, resulting in his 7.3 yards per carry, remains to be seen.
“Hopefully in the near future I’d like to get back there again. If not, I understand,” Gray said. “If they’re up for it — expanding my role — I’m up for it as well.”
Pettine sounds as if he’s all for taking advantage of the unique skill set that Gray offers should his transition prove successful. The reasons are twofold and simple: If a true fullback is in the game or a true tight end, the play-calling can be limited.
“But when you have a guy that’s that versatile it really forces defenses to kind of double or triple call what they’re in or water down what they’re doing to really try to be a catch-all,” Pettine said. “I think that’s something that we’re going to look at doing.”
Nothing is etched in stone, though.
“We’ll still be in the mode of deciding, ‘Are we going to have a true fullback or are we going to use a tight end to be that second fullback?’ ” Pettine said. “We’re still very much early on in that process, but part of that process was putting [Gray] there, kind of throwing him in there and see what he can do.”
As for Gray, he is open to whatever the coaches ask of him as long as he has a job.
“I would say my preferred position is being on this team,” Gray said. “But if they need me to play fullback, tight end or H-back, I’m all for that.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/abj.sports.