Joe Ray is one of the most decorated offensive linemen in the country, a three-time All-American at multiple positions and three-time recipient of his conference’s outstanding lineman award.
Such credentials would all but guarantee a parade of NFL scouts to campus and the likelihood of a high draft pick come spring. Except that Ray’s accomplishments came at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C., and that in the world of increasingly mammoth professional linemen, he is considered a bit short (6-1) and a bit light (280 pounds).
When Ray travels to Virginia for the upcoming Dream Bowl all-star game, he is on a fact-finding mission with shoulder pads.
“I honestly have no idea how I compare,” Ray said. “I’ll have to see when I get there. But I’m excited for the opportunity.”
The Dream Bowl, which will be broadcast Monday on ASN and live-streamed on americansportsnet.com from Virginia Beach, is a Martin Luther King Day showcase exclusively for Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA), Division II and Division III players. They will participate in an NFL-style combine, where scouts will measure, poke and prod, and will play a game on Monday.
Though Ray played tackle and guard his entire career at Lenoir-Rhyne, he is listed as a center on his bowl team’s roster, since at his size that’s where he figures to have the best shot at impressing pro scouts. No matter, because Lenoir-Rhyne offensive line coach Tom Simi said he may be a better center than a guard or tackle.
“Best player I’ve ever coached,” Simi said. “A great player and a better person. I could talk about him all day.”
Simi has coached for 20 years, including a five-year stint at a California junior college that sent nine players to FBS and FCS programs. He came to Lenoir-Rhyne two years ago and said that Ray embraced him and his methods, and took to coaching easily.
“It’s great when your best player is also your best practice guy and your best meeting guy,” Simi said. “He shows up with his binder every day. He’s a fifth-year senior and an All-American, but still taking copious notes. Never takes a play off or a rep off. He wants to dominate every drill.”
Ray anchored the line for an offense that led Division II in rushing for the past three years. Lenoir-Rhyne averaged 384.7 yards per game last season and set the NCAA record for rushing average in 2014, at 416.2 yards per game.
“I’d like to think my skills translate,” Ray said. “Moving in space and being able to go out on the perimeter and find guys to dance with.”
Simi said that Ray is plenty strong and has exceptional footwork and agility for his size. If versatility and work ethic count for anything, he should show well.
“He’s as tough as they come,” Simi said. “He’s from a different mold. His pain threshold is freaky.”
Ray’s career arc has been remarkable. He was 230 pounds coming out of high school in Atlanta, with Lenoir-Rhyne his only scholarship offer. He redshirted as a freshman and added 10-15 pounds per year, topping out at 275-280 pounds this season.
“You wonder, when guys add weight, if they’ll still have the same explosiveness,” Simi said, “and he does.”
Ray missed three games last season after tweaking his hamstring in practice, plus the coaches moved him from right tackle to left guard for injury reasons. It’s a significant switch, particularly in a triple-option scheme, but Ray’s transition was seamless.
“I almost felt guilty, moving him around like that,” Simi said, “because even though he was still great, I didn’t know if he’d get the recognition he deserved.”
“I knew that whatever he was doing, he was doing for the good of the team,” Ray said. “I told him, ‘Don’t even worry about it. Coach, take a deep breath. Everything’s going to be fine.’”
Indeed, Ray earned his third consecutive All-America nod and third consecutive Jacobs Blocking Trophy, which goes to the South Atlantic Conference’s best lineman. Now comes the next step.
“I haven’t seen too many guys from our league go to the pros,” Ray said. “We’ll see what happens.”