AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn's veteran receiving corps has several potential leaders for an offense determined to throw the ball more in 2014.
There's junior Sammie Coates, a freakishly athletic star who finished third nationally in yards per catch as the run-heavy Tigers' lone deep-ball threat in 2013.
There's also junior college transfer D'haquille "Duke" Williams, who has been described as a game-changer by coaches and teammates for his attack mentality toward passing thrown his way.
And don't forget about Ricardo Louis, a still-developing former running back and the now-legendary receiver of "The Miracle at Jordan-Hare."
The same goes for Quan Bray, a senior looking to end his Auburn career by living up to his high school hype, and junior Jaylon Denson, who made a name for himself as a physical playmaker before tearing his ACL midway through last season.
But these wide receivers already have a player they look up to—25-year-old junior Melvin Ray.
"What I like about him is he brings a maturity to the room," Denson said. "He's somebody we can go to when something goes wrong. He's obviously been here longer than we have. He's like the big brother of the room."
Ray's journey to the Plains was not the prototypical one by any means.
A standout baseball player from his youth, he did not start playing football until he was a high school sophomore.
"I loved [baseball], I played it my whole life," Ray told AL.com's Brandon Marcello in 2013. "It was the first sport I ever played, following my dad and my brother. And it was something that I loved. Once I started football around 10th grade, I realized that was a sport that physically was probably better for me overall."
As a young wide receiver at North Florida Christian in Tallahassee, Ray emerged as a highly rated recruiting target for some of the South's biggest programs.
He was a 4-star recruit out of high school after a 1,058-yard, 16-touchdown senior season in 2007 and committed to play for Alabama over programs such as Clemson, Florida, Georgia and Miami.
But baseball came calling back several months after he committed to play for the Crimson Tide. Ray was picked in the 33rd round of the 2008 MLB draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, and he decided to step away from football to follow his dream of playing professional baseball.
The two-sport star did not enjoy the same success that he had in high school in the Dodgers' minor league system—he had a .189 batting average with 14 RBI and 95 strikeouts over three seasons, according to Baseball-Reference.com—and he soon realized how much he missed the gridiron.
"It's actually a very hard grind, especially starting at the bottom in the minor leagues," Ray told Auburn's official website earlier this year. "It's not the lifestyle that people think about playing professional baseball. College football is a whole lot more enjoyable than the minor leagues."
Ray enrolled at Alabama early in 2011, but he never saw the practice field for the team that once held his commitment.
He then started looking down the road to Auburn, where he said he was impressed by the level of the school's academics and the program's football facilities—things he was not necessarily worried about during his original recruitment.
After taking a redshirt year in 2011, Ray was a contributor on special teams in the 2012 season.
"When I got here, I spent that whole first year away from the team," Ray said. "I was with them at practice, and then the redshirt workout with everybody, so I had that whole year to get my body back in football shape. So by the time that I did come back, I was really ready to go; it was just about getting the mental part of it back as far as plays, being a wide receiver again."
When Gus Malzahn and his staff arrived in Auburn, Ray got a few opportunities to showcase just how far he had come.
While he made a few catches against FCS-level Western Carolina and one against Georgia, he made a name for himself in the BCS National Championship Game.
Ray scored his first collegiate touchdown, a wide-open 50-yard reception, against his hometown Florida State Seminoles just outside of Los Angeles, the home of the baseball team he dreamed of playing with in the pros.
"Obviously, that game didn't come out the way we wanted to come out, but it felt good to do that," Ray said. "The goal is just to get back, however that is. If I make a play or don't make a play, I just want to make sure we end up [making] it back."
That selfless attitude has made an impact on Ray's fellow receivers.
"His attitude [is] what makes him a leader and a really cool dude," sophomore Tony Stevens said. "He knows when to play around and have fun with us and he knows when it's time to get on us and be serious. He knows everything about playing receiver here and he knows what the coaches want at every spot."
On the field, Ray is hoping to carry over his success from the national title game.
He showed his speed on the touchdown grab against the Seminoles, and his 6'3" frame makes him the kind of big target Auburn coaches want on the inside and the outside.
"If someone went down, and it’s even a position he’s not playing you could move him there and he’s be able to plug in and play," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said, per the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer's Ryan Black. "Melvin will have a role, and he’ll help us win."
Although newcomer Williams has been the talk of fall camp with his big-play ability, teammates say the junior college stud has not made the best play of practice so far. That honor belongs to Ray.
"Probably the play Melvin Ray made in the first scrimmage," Denson said. "It was a long ball. He went up between two defenders and caught it. It was like a 50-yard gain."
Ray already has the respect of his teammates on and off the field as a veteran offensive leader. This season, he is hoping to come from an under-the-radar player to a playmaker who will command the respect of SEC defenses.
Just ask the players who have to cover him every day in practice.
"He’s got a big body and he knows how to put his body in front of you and place the ball," said senior Trovon Reed, a former Auburn wide receiver now playing cornerback. "He’s just a guy waiting on his turn, waiting on his breakout time. He’s going to shock the world."
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.