Pirates Coaches Look Back to Move Forward

By Mick Moninghoff

As the Massachusetts Pirates embark on their third season, they continue to look for a way to advance past the first round of the National Arena League playoffs and to claim the team’s first-ever championship. This year a new Head Coach in former three-time Super Bowl Champion Patrick Pass will rely on two coaches who are relatively new to the sidelines to accomplish that goal.

Two-time Arena Football League champion Reggie Gray, a former wide receiver will take on the challenge of being the Offensive Coordinator and Rayshaun Kizer, a former defensive back who ranks third with 67 career interceptions in the AFL, will serve as Defensive Coordinator. Both were selected to All-Arena Teams five times during their playing careers.

For Gray, this will be his first time coaching in the professional ranks and for Kizer, it’s just his second season at the professional level. Both know that coaching presents its own set of challenges especially when things are not going according to plan. There will come a time when a particular match up may not be working in the Pirates favor and when that day arrives, how will they make adjustments to help their player to come out on top?

Recently I spoke with both Gray and Kizer and asked them to take me back to a time when they were in a similar situation as a player and what steps they took to get themselves over the hump.

Gray remembers some of the great defensive backs he faced and one in particular that was harder to beat.

“There were some very good DB’s that I went against,” he said. “They didn’t give me problems but there were always battles; James Romain, (Pirates current DC) Rayshaun Kizer, but I would say Virgil Gray in a sense because of his talents,” he said.

Virgil Gray played seven years in the Arena Football League and finished with 398 tackles, assisted on 113 others, had 50 interceptions and scored seven defensive touchdowns. A product of the University of Rhode Island, Gray was an AFL All-Arena second team DB and kick returner in 2011, and received First Team honors in 2013 and in his final season of 2018.

“Virgil had all the attributes as far as speed, quickness and the one thing that separated him from other DB’s was that he was a coach on the field. The nature of him knowing the game put him on a pedestal. With Virgil it was tough sometimes because he adjusted his game based on the receiver, so every single time you wouldn’t get the same kind of coverage or the same things you watched on film because he was preparing for you and changing his game up,” Gray said.

The former wideout went on to say, “Early on I used to get the best of him when he was in Pittsburgh, but then he got the better of me and I had to get an understanding of how. He switched up his style. I was mentally prepared to go against this one “Virgil Gray,” and he switched it up to go against Reggie Gray, so it was a see-saw battle back and forth.”

The Pirates OC, who will also serve as Assistant Head Coach, learned first hand how making adjustments on the fly can lead to success.

“With that, it almost took me making in-game adjustments based on the type of technique that he was using. He was using the backpedal, reading the offense, making plays, and then when he played against me, he used an “open” technique because of what I did. I had to actually break down more film and fix things that he was doing against me to try and overcome him again,” Gray said.

Kizer, who was a Defensive Coordinator last season with Bismarck of the Indoor Football League, will also coach the Pirates secondary. He remembers some of the wide receivers who brought out the best in him. One might think that TT Toliver, the AFL’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, Tiger Jones or Damian Harrell, who topped the charts with 357 career touchdowns would be at the top of his list, yet they were not the players who gave him his biggest challenge.

“You know who gave me a hard time surprisingly was Dominick Goodman,” Kizer said.

Goodman played six seasons with the Cleveland Gladiators and compiled 751 receptions for 7,468 yards and 135 touchdowns. The wideout from the University of Cincinnati was a First Team All-Arena selection in 2014 and a second team award winner in 2012.

“He was a hard receiver to read because he wasn’t that fast, be he ran good routes and all of his routes looked exactly the same whether if he was running deep or running short. Sometimes it was hard to gage what he was really doing. Dominick Goodman would be one of them and I’d have to put Reggie (Pirates Offensive Coordinator Reggie Gray) up there too because Reggie was really shifty in his motion and he at the top of his routes he would freeze your feet. He was one of the guys that I had to watch a lot on film. Those would be the main two that jump out at me,” Kizer added.

So how did Kizer overcome his competition and how will he teach his defensive backs to do the same?

“Surprisingly film study. The more film you watch the more tendencies you’re going to pick up on a player. With a lot of players if they are successful in this league they are not going to change. They are not going to change up what they do with their motions, how they run certain routes and what they do when they get to the top of their route. If you watch film real closely, you’ll start picking up on a couple things that will help you out, like I know he’s going to run a post here because he did that on film. You have to watch film; you can’t go out there and just guess because it’s going to be a long night if you do that,” Kizer said.

Along with attention to detail in the film room, Kizer and Gray know that a players’ desire will go a long way toward success. Both agree that a “winning culture” correlates to a “winning record.”

“I’m determined,” Gray said.” “I have that attitude that I want to be the best in whatever I do. I’m a determined competitor. Everything I do I want to compete. If it’s competing against another player, competing against another coach, even if I’m competing against myself, I want to be the best at whatever I do. If it’s going down the street and hopping squares on the sidewalk, I want to be the best to do it. If it’s selling cars, I want to be the best to do it. If it’s selling homes, I want to be the best to do it, so I have a tough competitive nature and that goes along with me putting my best foot forward to be the best at whatever I do,” Gray added.

“I’m hard working; I’m dedicated,” said Kizer. “Once I have my mind on something, I’m going to give it 110 percent. I don’t believe in quitting. I’m a winner. I like to win. Nobody likes to lose obviously but I’m a competitor. I’m just a hard worker,” Kizer added.

Taking the Pirates to the next level won’t be easy, but Kizer believes if the Pirates focus on what they can control things will take care of themselves.

“The competition level picked up obviously as a lot of AFL guys came over. It’s definitely going to be very competitive this year. I’m really just focused on the Pirates and what we do. We control our own destiny. I feel like we have a good group of guys and a good roster that Jawad (Pirates President and General Manager Jawad Yatim) put together and I feel like all we have to do is to coach them up the right way and we’ll be very successful,” he said.