Danny Gray has transformed himself into an offensive mainstay. Against Navy, he has a chance to take the next step.

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The coffee shop was mostly empty in front of the Naval Academy entrance.

A pair of Midshipmen walked around. A few SMU fans — coffee in hand and dressed in red — were soaking in the ambience of the prototypical New England town. The atmosphere was quiet as a few stragglers hustled past.

And then, crisply breaking through the light crash of waves on the harbor, one of the men responded to the question of what it would take for SMU to come away with a win at Navy on Saturday.

“Probably a couple of touchdowns from [Tanner] Mordecai. Danny Gray also has to be big,” he said. “He’s been big lately.”

The answer continued after that. But let’s stop there.

The fact that Gray was mentioned at all in a question about who SMU needs to rely on to win a road game at Navy is significant. A year ago, the thought of Gray being a main contributor on a ranked SMU team would have been laughable.

But in 2021, Gray has transformed himself from a gimmicky, one-off target into SMU’s most consistent focal point as the program reaches for another double-digit win season. It’s to the point now where, if SMU is going to win on the road at Navy for the first time since 1998, it is going to need Gray along the way.

And while Saturday represents a chance for SMU to go 6-0 and solidify its spot in the Top 25, it is also a chance for Gray to take a next step in his development.

“He was kind of a guy that could make some big plays last year, but it wasn’t very consistent. I think the level of consistency is starting to show up this year,” SMU head coach Sonny Dykes said. “He’s been able to practice consistently and just get more comfortable with the offense and the quarterbacks trust him more than they did last year.”

Through the first five games of the season, Gray leads SMU in receiving yards, catches, and targets.

He has accounted for seven touchdowns — the most on the team — in an offense that has averaged the seventh-most points in the country.

“This is the role I envisioned [when I came to SMU]. Show up, do your job, be that guy. Be the same guy you are on and off the field,” Gray said.

But it wasn’t always the role Gray had.

In last year’s campaign, after transferring in from junior college, Gray often disappeared from games. He would routinely have a big play and not have a catch the rest of the night.

He averaged just over four catches per game in 2020. If the Tulsa game was taken out, where Gray was nearly the only option after Rashee Rice was injured and Reggie Roberson Jr. was out, he averaged 3.5 catches per game.

Gray also struggled with drops. Would-be touchdowns often fell out of his hands. It causes then-quarterback Shane Buechele to gradually move away from Gray and instead rely more heavily on consistent targets like Tyler Page.

“He took care of his body better in the offseason. Think he’s had more of an emphasis on nutrition and training and doing things off the field the right way and I think it’s shown,” Dykes said.

So far Gray has averaged 5.4 receptions a game. He has nearly surpassed the number of total yards, 432, than he did all of last year, 448. He also has more touchdowns through five games than last year.

“It’s just a great feeling,” Gray said. “I feel like we’re not all the way there yet, but I feel like we’re getting there. Closer, one percent better every day.”

Saturday could be the next one percent. If Gray can put together another big game, it might push both SMU and the senior wide receiver into national prominence.

Winning on the road at Navy is certainly not a given. But if SMU is to remain unbeaten a march further into an undefeated season, it will need Gray.

Just like the men in the coffee shop predicted.

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