April 14, 2014
Melvin Ray gets a hug from Sammie Coates after scoring a touchdown in the BCS title game (USA Today photo)
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- Melvin Ray's journey to Auburn came with a few detours.
Like the one where he signed to play football at Alabama in 2008. Or the one where he spent three years in professional baseball in the Los Angeles Dodgers' organization before giving college football another go as an Auburn wide receiver.
"It took a while," he says.
Now, just a week or so before his 25th birthday, Ray finds himself as a sage veteran who has shown he can be counted on. Need a 50-yard touchdown catch in the BCS title game? Ray came through with one against Florida State last Jan. 6.
It's one of the highlights on Ray's road to success.
"We had actually practiced that play for weeks," he says. "We had it ready for Georgia and Alabama, and we were just waiting for the moment.
"When he threw it I knew it was six. I'm not the fastest guy in the world, but I’m not the slowest, either. I knew with that green ahead of me I should score."
The wide-open Ray raced down the field, side-stepped a defender at the 5 and scored.
Fifty more yards in distance, and confidence, in his long journey.
"The quarterbacks and the coaches had confidence in me all season," Ray said. "I'd randomly have a catch here and there…one in the Georgia game, a few in Western Carolina game, they tried to feed me in the Texas A&M game. They always had confidence."
Ray finished with five catches for 108 yards last season. The stats suggest there's room to grow. His life experiences, and his age, tell his teammates he has a lot to offer.
"As far as life in general, they look up to me as a big brother," Ray said. "I have guys ask me questions now about things that have nothing to do about football. I appreciate it. I had that same guidance from my older brothers; and when I came out of high school, I was around a lot of older guys in baseball. I learned how to become a leader away from the sport.
"I'm always there when they call me."
And he can talk about being a pro athlete.
"A lot of guys here are multi-sport athletes and like baseball. They always want to know what that lifestyle is like," Ray said. "I tell them that is not an easy road. It's actually a very hard grind, especially starting at the bottom in the minor leagues. It's not the lifestyle that people think about playing professional baseball. College football is a whole lot more enjoyable than the minor leagues."
Ray found his 2013 highlight in the title game in a season in which Auburn dominated the SEC by running the football. The deep throws were mostly to Sammie Coates.
"You've got Sammie, who is a weapon. You don't fix things that aren't broken," Ray said.
But there was that play reserved for Ray.
"That play, along with some smaller plays last year, helped me keep my confidence up to say, 'Hey, I've still got it.' It never did go anywhere."
Melvin Ray was a baseball guy growing up, just like his dad and brothers. He didn't begin playing football until the 10th grade. He signed with Alabama, originally, but headed to professional baseball when the Dodgers drafted him in the 33rd round.
He came to Auburn ready to flip the switch.
"I had to become a football guy twice," he said. "When I first got here it was a different style of offense, a different style of play. I got in the shape for that offense. I was a lot bigger. I was 230 pounds. I was really getting back into football shape, and didn't really play much except for special teams that year. Then Coach Malzahn came in and he has a faster pace, so I had to readjust my body again, trying to get back to being a smaller, athletic guy. I had to adjust myself again."
"He's got a maturity level and he understands the system," says offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. "We moved him around a lot last year. He gives us some flexibility with all the things we do differently with the personnel. He can play a lot of different spots.
"And he also makes you feel good, too, that if someone went down and it’s even a position he’s not playing, you could move him there and he’s be able to plug in and play. Melvin will have a role and he’ll help us win."
Ray predicts more opportunities in 2014 as Auburn offense grows with second-year quarterback Nick Marshall, especially with the additions of receivers Duke Williams and Stanton Truitt.
"I'm just helping to help out as much as I can," Ray said. "Coach knows I can get open and make things happen when I catch the ball. I look to put up pretty good numbers this year.
"Duke and Truitt are really fast. Nick having another year in the offense and feeling more confident throwing the ball I think we're going to be a lot more dangerous in the passing game. I think it will balance everything else."
Melvin Ray's touchdown catch in the BCS title game...
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine