Molding Titans LB Cedric Gray, by North Carolina coach Tommy Thigpen

The Tennessee Titans may have drafted an instant contributor in North Carolina linebacker Cedric Gray with the No. 106 overall selection in the 2024 NFL Draft. General manager Ran Carthon entered the draft searching for a defender to play opposite free-agent signing Kenneth Murray Jr. at linebacker. The expectation is that Gray possesses an outstanding opportunity to make a quick impact.

North Carolina co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen oversaw Gray’s development for the Tar Heels. He’s a veteran that has coached a number of pro-ready NFL linebackers. One of the nation’s finest recruiters and brightest defensive minds, coach Thigpen is highly experienced when speaking to Gray’s abilities.

Coach Thigpen recently spoke exclusively with Broadway Sports. Thigpen discussed the fit organizational between the Titans and Gray. He also offered terrific insight into Gray’s leadership qualities, his ability to wear the green dot and call a defense, playing in coverage, and so much more.

JM: First things first. How do you like the fit between Cedric Gray and the Tennessee Titans?

Coach Thigpen: I was speaking with our staff at North Carolina about that. If I could have hand-selected any linebackers coach to continue overseeing Cedric Gray’s development at the next level, it would have been [Titans inside linebackers coach] Frank Bush.

There wasn’t a better fit for Gray than coach Bush. I know that his development is going to go through the roof once Frank [Bush] gets his hands on him. The fact that he ended up in Tennessee is a dream come true.

Frank Bush is the best, period. He develops them. He’s patient with them. He speaks the language. He played the position himself at a high level. Players have a ton of respect for Frank Bush.

I’m so proud that Cedric Gray ended up with the Tennessee Titans. I know what it’s going to look like once Frank gets his hands on him.

JM: We love hearing that. Coach Bush is awesome. I’m curious if anybody from the Titans contacted you throughout the pre-draft process? Did they vet him through you at all?

Coach Thigpen: No sir, I actually never heard from anybody in Tennessee. It’s funny, I thought he would end up with the Pittsburgh Steelers. That was one of the teams that talked to him a bunch.

The New York Jets loved him. They talked about him a bunch to me. I’d mention the Dallas Cowboys as well as another team that really loved him. When he was drafted by the Titans, I was so happy because Nashville is my favorite city (laughs).

I coached at The University of Tennessee for five years, and I recruited the city of Nashville for five years. I love the place. I’ve always been a fan of Tennessee.

JM: You have a great excuse to come visit Nashville soon.

Coach Thigpen: I’ll be up there during OTAs (laughs).

JM: The city looks forward to welcoming you again! Gray leaves North Carolina as a three-year starter with three straight 100-plus tackle seasons. What do you think it is about his game that allows him to always be around the ball?

Coach Thigpen: It’s the way he diagnoses plays. He has an incredibly high football I.Q. He’s also been a pro when it comes to preparation. He never walked into a game unprepared. As a coach, I never worried about him or his teammate Power Echols.

As young 19, 20, 21 year old players, they were already living in the film room. They were able to talk themselves through games like a coach would.

Let me tell you this, Justin. When Cedric Gray and Power Echols were on the practice field, it’s non-stop communication. When they get to the sidelines, it’s. “What did you see on this play?” They talk through every scenario. Hey, I noticed the running back is taking two steps to the sideline, etc.

They never stop talking about football. That’s what I love about Cedric Gray. He didn’t get 100-plus tackles every year by accident. He knows where the ball is going. He knew all he had to do was defeat his one-versus-one and go make a play. 

That’s always been his mindset. If I put him on the field, he was going to take care of the rest. That’s always been his motto and M.O. He’s a hard worker that studies the game. He’s put the work in. None of his success was by accident.

He’s a talented young man, but it’s his attention to detail that sets him apart. That’s what I enjoyed most about coaching him.

JM: It sounds like you placed a ton of faith in him. What are some of the responsibilities you put on his plate?

Coach Thigpen: I trusted him to get everybody lined up (laughs). We had a lot of young guys on the field, particularly in the secondary. That was the case for us. We had to make a lot of calls and checks.

We have some young, talented players in the secondary. We had to get them on the field, but I needed Cedric Gray to tell them where to go (laughs). He got them lined up for us. “You have to come over here and cover the No. 2 receiver.”

He knows where everybody is supposed to be on the field for every single play in our playbook. He knew when guys took a bad angle and missed their assignment (laughs). I never had to fix it from the sideline. He was fixing it on the field!

Those are the great linebackers in this league, the ones that are problem solvers. One of his biggest attributes for us was that he knew where everyone was supposed to line up. He got them lined up the way we needed them to.

JM: That’s huge. The Titans entered this offseason searching for somebody to wear the green dot and call the defense. General manager Ran Carthon has talked about seeing young players do it in previous stops, like Fred Warner in San Francisco. It would obviously be a huge responsibility to put on a rookie, but how quickly do you think he can do it?

Coach Thigpen: He’s going to live in their building until he’s ready for every responsibility. It wouldn’t take him long at all. It probably takes him one offseason to get ready for something like that.

If they give him that responsibility, if you give it to him early enough, and give him time to master it, he will excel at it. One thing about him is that he’s always been a high-level guy. He’s never going to let his teammates down. That dates back to high school with him.

If they give him that green dot responsibility, he’ll make sure he’s ready for it. It would be a huge honor to him because it means he’s never coming off the field. He would take a lot of pride in something like that.

That’s what he did for us. I spoke to my staff about that the other day actually. There were games for us where he played 90-100 snaps. He never got tired. He’s in superior shape. He’s an extremely knowledgeable young man that takes pride in his craft.

When you talk about wearing the green dot, I know he can do it. That’s what he wants. If Cedric wasn’t playing football, he’d be a high-ranking officer in the Military. That’s the type of kid he is. He’s a direct person that understands how to motivate his teammates.

Cedric Gray gets people to do what needs to be done.

JM: He’s also been successful in the passing game. His background as a wide receiver shows up in coverage with eight career pass breakups and five interceptions. Do you feel he’s a three-down linebacker as a rookie?

Coach Thigpen: Yes, I feel that way because he can play in space. He can cover wide receivers. There were times we put him on the No. 2 [receiver]. I’d go up to him and ask, “Can you handle that vertical [route] by yourself?” The response was always the same. “Yup, I got it coach” (laughs).

You’d look up and if his assignment was running a 99-yard vertical, Ced would carry it the entire way. He can do that because he’s so good in space. That’s the thing about him. As defensive minded guys, we always say space is the enemy. The faster you can close that space, the less likely you are to miss a tackle.

Third down is his money down. He excels in those situations. We did a lot of exotic things on third down with him. We had many different calls. Every week you’d just see him on the field helping correct any confusion his teammates were experiencing. He was somebody that knew how to calm them down.

His presence made us feel good as coaches, and his teammates felt the same way. Ok, I have Ced on the field with me. If there’s something I don’t know, I can look to Ced and he’ll tell me where to go.

JM: This has been an outstanding conversation, coach. I’m so thankful and honored that you carved out so much time for me this morning. In closing, what can you tell us about Cedric Gray’s leadership style as a two-time captain at North Carolina?

Coach Thigpen: He’s very direct (laughs). He’s very abrasive when guys screw up. He has very little patience for mental errors because there’s no good reason for a mental error. He sees mental errors as a weakness in a player.

It means you didn’t study the game hard enough, you don’t take the game seriously. That’s the way it was for us. Ced’s leadership style, he’s not going to be afraid to tell guys, hey, you’re getting wiped out of plays. You’re not playing right.

He’s going to call you out if you’re making mental errors and then he sees you not taking notes in the film room. He wants to know that you can regurgitate what the coaching staff taught you.

He’s not afraid to speak up. When he was a junior with us, there were times where he was looking at guys like, hey, you’re letting us down. I heard him once say “we’re playing with 10 on the field” (laughs).

He’s going to get in your face. He’s abrasive if you don’t do your job. He’s going to hold guys accountable. 

He’s going to make sure he does is job, so you better make sure you’re doing yours as well.

Author: Justin MeloSenior Writer, Interviewer and Podcaster for Broadway Sports covering the Tennessee Titans and NFL draft. For more than five years, Justin Melo has professionally covered all things NFL draft and Titans for The Draft Network, SB Nation and USA Today. Best known for his Interview Series with NFL draft prospects, Justin has interviewed more than 500 NFL players. Co-host of the Music City Audible podcast alongside Justin Graver (@titansfilmroom).

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