ABSECON — E’lijah Gray thought Patrick Smith was kidding him.
The two standout running backs spoke on the phone this summer, and Smith told Gray he was considering transferring from The Peddie School in Hightstown, Mercer County, to Holy Spirit.
“I thought he was just playing around,” Gray said. “I said, ‘Why are you getting my hopes up? It was hilarious.”
A few days after the call, Gray walked out of the locker room for a Spartans practice and saw Smith on the field already working with Spirit coaches.
“I was like, ‘Wow, he really came,’” Gray said. “Me and him in the backfield is something dangerous.”
Smith and Gray give Spirit one of the state’s most potent ground games. Holy Spirit (2-1) is ranked No. 4 in The Press Elite 11 and plays 7 p.m. Friday at Hammonton (1-2) in a West Jersey Football League Royal Division game. Spirit averages 44.7 points per game.
“It’s been positive for the team. It’s been positive for both of them,” Spirit coach A.J. Russo said. “Those guys have embraced what we’re doing offensively. They’re both good kids. They love the game of football, and they love trying to accomplish our goal of winning a state championship.”
Gray, a senior from Somers Point, has rushed 39 times for 313 yards, while Smith, a junior, has carried 23 times for 240 yards.
What is unusual about Gray and Smith is the relationship between the two. There is no jealousy.
Gray rushed for 1,233 yards as a junior. He could have easily been worried that Smith’s presence would cost him carries.
“I just want to win a state championship,” Gray said. “If he’s going to be the one to help us, I’m fine with that.”
Conversely, Smith could have gone to a school where he would have been the unquestioned No. 1 running back.
“We know we’re both dynamic backs,” Smith said. “It’s hard to stop both of us when we’re on a roll. We just lift each other up. That’s only going to make us better.”
Smith grew up in Egg Harbor Township and now lives in Pleasantville. He played at St. Augustine as a freshman and at The Peddie School as a sophomore.
Smith just felt The Peddie School was not the place for him, so he returned to Atlantic County.
Smith and Gray knew each other growing up. They played on the same all-star teams as youth players.
Gray worked with Smith to make sure he knew the Holy Spirit playbook. The two would review plays on the white board in the coaches’ office before and after practice.
“That’s what made our bond even stronger,” Smith said.
It didn’t take Smith long to make his presence felt at Spirit.
In a season-opening 56-27 loss to Mount St. Joseph (Maryland), he grabbed the opening kickoff, ran up the middle, cut right into the clear and sprinted down the sideline for a touchdown.
“They welcomed me with open arms,” Smith said of the Spartans. “The bond that we created was real quick.”
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Smith and the 5-9, 194-pound Gray are often on the field at the same time.
“They both block for each other,” Russo said, “and they’re openly happy about doing that.”
While Smith relies on his speed, Gray is known for his ability to run hard between the tackles. Like just about every other speed-power running back combination in the history of football, the duo has nicknamed themselves thunder (Gray) and lightning (Smith).
“Both of them have great vision,” Russo said. “They see the field. They understand the blocking scheme.”
The reduced workload should help Smith and Gray.
It’s not like they need 10 extra carries per game to prove how talented they are. They should both have more energy when the playoffs come in November.
Gray carried 15 times for 153 yards in Spirit’s 41-22 loss to St. Joe in last year’s state Non-Public II title game. But he admits he was tired in the fourth quarter of that contest.
“We’re getting breaks,” Smith said, “and our legs are fresh.”
In the meantime, Russo and his staff have the pleasant problem of deciding who to hand the ball to on each running play.
“We’re never selfish,” Smith said. “It’s just teamwork at the end of the day.”