Sept. 8, 2016
By Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart –
On the surface, Georgia’s Tech defensive backfield has little experience playing together.
A.J. Gray and twins Lance and Lawrence Austin know better. Long before they lined up in the Yellow Jackets’ secondary, the trio served as water boys for the Washington County High School football team in Sandersville, Ga. Their dads, Dr. Allen Gray and Derick Austin, were coaches on the Washington County staff.
“We started in, like, elementary school. Before every Friday night, we used to always get our own games going before the game and play tackle football,” A.J. Gray recalled.
Come game time, they handled their responsibilities well.
“They did a good job,” said Dr. Gray. “Because if they didn’t, we would have run them out of there.”
That bond has since reformed on The Flats, where all three figure to have prominent roles this season. Gray and Lance Austin made their first career starts against Boston College last Saturday; Lawrence, older than Lance by a minute, should see plenty of reps as the Jackets’ nickel back.
Though they weren’t exactly tested against BC — the Eagles ranked 124th in the nation in passing offense last year — they’re eager to turn a preseason unknown into a strength. Heading into the Jackets’ home opener against Mercer (3 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network), the secondary has already identified one area where it wants to improve.
If excelling in the secondary takes discipline, then Lance, Lawrence and A.J. had plenty of that growing up, too; their fathers were also their high school principals.
Dr. Allen Gray rose from PE teacher to principal at Washington County, where A.J. earned Gatorade Georgia Player of the Year honors. Derick, a former cornerback at Georgia Southern, moved his family to Barnesville, Ga., where he had taken the principal’s job at Lamar County, before his sons’ seventh-grade year.
Not surprisingly, their sons didn’t have your typical high school experience. “I’m going to tell your Dad,” was a crack they heard often.
“All I’m going to say is you walk on a thinnnn line,” laughed A.J., who added that it was easy for him and his older sister, Allisha, to stay out of trouble — after all, their Dad was their ride home.
Lance Austin said the only time he ever “visited the principal’s office” at Lamar County was to grab a snack from his Dad.
“I didn’t get into much trouble,” he said.
“Let me correct that. I didn’t get into any trouble.”
“I didn’t have a problem with having to balance being the father and the principal,” he said. “Both their mom and I both had high standards for then. They liked to try to conform and produce to what their expectations were.”
Gray and the Austins both said their fathers were more low-key principals than rigid, fear-mongering taskmasters. And being a principal’s son wasn’t all that awkward. In fact, they cherished it.
“Staying on top of you, making sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to do – I had great parents growing up. So did A.J. They made sure they stayed on top of us,” said Lance.
But what about those Friday nights, when Gray and the Austins went from innocent water boys to sought-after football standouts? Didn’t their fathers have administrative duties as principal? Could they really let loose cheering on their sons?
“I want to say he was in principal mode but Dad mode on the low,” said Lance, who fondly recalls scoring a touchdown (he, like Gray, played quarterback in high school), running up to his dad in the back of the end zone and coyly slapping him five.
Dr. Gray, meanwhile, found a creative way to split his roles.
“I was always stationed in the corner of the end zone. My superintendent used to give me a hard time. I was actually doing my duties, but I was watching the game,” he said.
“I delegate pretty good, too,” he quipped.
That’s no longer a concern for Dr. Gray, who along with Derick Austin, figure to see a heavy dose of their former water boys in the Georgia Tech secondary. As one of the more untested units on the defense, they’ll be challenged often.