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AUBURN, Ala. – Quan Bray might only touch the ball two or three times a game, but he has become a playmaker for No. 5 Auburn.
The Tigers' senior receiver and punt return man is coming off the best performance of a career that hasn't taken off like the onetime top recruit hoped. Bray scored touchdowns on catches of 37 and 44 yards and on a 76-yard punt return against Louisiana Tech. He has emerged as one of the nation's top punt returners and made the most of limited touches.
Bray said he set leading the nation in punt returns as a goal coming into the season. Rated as one of the nation's top all-purpose athletes out of high school, he's carved a bigger role on the team for his final year at least in special teams.
"It means a lot because I came in, freshman All-American this and that, a lot of hype," Bray said Tuesday. "I really haven't done what I know I can do. It's just a blessing to me just because I've been working hard and for coach to give me the opportunity, even though it's my senior year. I'm just trying to make the most of my opportunities."
Through it all, he continues to honor his late mother, Tonya Bray.
She never got to see Bray play for the Tigers, who face No. 15 LSU Saturday night. His father, Jeffery Jones is serving a life sentence for shooting and killing Tonya Bray on July 3, 2011 before the player's freshman season.
For gameday, he honors her memory with a prayer and the message "RIP Ma" written in marker on his wrists. For life, Bray has her face tattooed onto his upper right arm above the message "R.I.P. Tonya."
And for one afternoon, he was one of Auburn's big stars.
Most of Bray's biggest contributions have come as Auburn's punt returner, a role largely taken over by Chris Davis last season. Now, Bray's 36.8-yard average per return leads the nation. Just four games in, Bray has already become the first Auburn player since Mike Fuller in 1974 to score on two punt returns in a season.
Utah's Kaelin Clay has returned three punts for touchdowns this season while nobody else has done it multiple times. Bray's 184 punt return yards is more than 115 FBS teams.
"Quan Bray is a dangerous returner and we're going to have to make sure that we get down under those punts and handle that return challenge," LSU coach Les Miles said.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said he's not surprised by Bray's success as a return man.
"We just asked him to raise his level," Malzahn said on Tuesday. "Really, it was pretty simple. We just asked him to go more north-south, and he's really been doing that. He's got a lot of confidence right now."
As a receiver, Bray hadn't had many balls come his way before Louisiana Tech. Through three games, Bray had three catches for 19 yards, with just three career receiving touchdowns.
He gained 91 yards on three catches versus the Bulldogs.
It was a performance his teammates could savor, too.
"You see all the hard work that he puts in," tailback Cameron Artis-Payne said. "He's always an energy guy in the weight room and when we're doing conditioning he stays after. He's one of the first people (to arrive) and one of the last people to leave. To see all that hard work parlay to the field is great."