Raymond Gray was trudging up the alley to the Howard locker room after football practice, his helmet and shoulder pads in hand. He stopped to chat with friends, and soon turned his attention to the woman in the group. He charmed her for a few seconds, then, as they parted, turned and shrugged.

"You know how us quarterbacks are," he said, flashing a disarming grin. "We always get the girl."

It has taken three long, trying years for that confidence to bubble back to the surface in Gray. His perspective has changed in that time -- in the literal sense, he's gone from the playing field to the sidelines. He speaks and acts now with the tempered confidence of a quarterback who led his high school to the state championship but in college found himself relegated to the bench.

And he understands a little better now the context of the last three years, why they weren't completely worthless, and why they will stand him in good stead when he opens at the helm for the Bison against Cheyney State here Saturday.

If things go as planned this season for the senior signal-caller, "those three years will have made this season for him," said Howard Coach Floyd Keith.

With Keith picking his spots the last couple seasons, Gray played well every time he appeared, but never was able to win the starting job. In his only start as a sophomore, he completed eight of 15 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another score in guiding the Bison to a near-upset of Morgan State.

Then, against Florida A & M last fall, he completed six of 10 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown.

But as Keith put it, "He just had the misfortune of playing behind the fellow who might just be the best quarterback this institution ever had."

That fellow, Ron Wilson, completed 53 percent of his passes for 1,784 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for seven scores. He led the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in passing and total offense and was named conference player of the year. In the process, he kept his understudy understudying.

In the face of those achievements, Gray modestly maintains he was the better quarterback. "I always thought I should be playing," he said. "I considered myself just a little better than the guy I was behind, and it bugged me a little. I'm long overdue."

But three years of waiting also has done Gray some good. Now, Keith said, "Ray comes into this season with more experience than any previous quarterback we've had."

"There's no question," Gray said, "that I fit into the offense as well as Ron Wilson. I think I'm going to surprise a lot of people because I haven't been getting a lot of playing time. I'm just too optimistic to worry about too many things."

Displaying that renewed optimism, Gray boldly has predicted he will complete 60 percent of his passes this season and lead the conference, maybe even the nation, in passing.

But Gray's high-sounding promises don't sound so hollow considering Wilson made the same leap from obscurity to stardom that Gray now aspires to.

The fall before his senior campaign, Wilson completed less than 37 percent of his passes for 700 yards and just one touchdown. Gray's marks are equally unimpressive: 13 of 23 last year for 206 yards and a touchdown; as a sophomore, 11 of 20 with two touchdowns.

Now that Gray, who quarterbacked his high school team to 15 straight victories and a Louisiana state championship while throwing for more than 1,700 yards, has mastered the Bison's option offense, Howard opponents likely will see more offensive explosions this year.

Lacking a big, bruising back to do yeoman's rushing work, the Bison will rely heavily on Gray to get the ball to fleet receivers Tracy Singleton and Robert Artisst.

Singleton caught 49 passes for 1,013 yards and five touchdowns to lead the conference and finish third in the nation in receiving last fall. Artisst had 19 catches, 333 yards and three touchdowns. But he suffered a hairline fracture of his clavicle the second week of practice and will miss at least two games.

The aerial assault could begin Saturday against Cheyney State, with the Bison, 6-2-2 last year, trying to neutralize a defensive front that averages 253 pounds a man.

"Sometimes he (Gray) doesn't think I say enough good things about him, but Ray's going to have a tremendous season," Keith said. "I made him prove himself to me, and he's ready to start now. He earned it."