A year ago Jonas Gray was better known for besting Saved By The Bell's Dustin Diamond--also known as "Screech"--in standup comedy than for anything he had done on the football field. Many Irish fans expected the second coming of Ray Rice when Gray--who had been listed by recruiting services at 5'9", just over 200 lbs.--showed up at a stout, lean, and fast 230 lbs. Gray nevertheless had a difficult first three years at Notre Dame. Fumbles, injuries, a coaching change, and being buried on the depth chart behind Armando Allen and Robert Hughes, kept Gray from making an impact in his first three years in the program.
Fast forward to fall camp of Gray's senior year. Many Irish fans hoped for and expected a big year out of Gray, while others were ready to write him off as a bust. Seven games into the 2011 season, Gray has proven the doubters wrong and piqued the interest of NFL scouts with his rare blend of speed, balance, elusiveness, and power. Gray still hasn't taken the starting tailback position, but he's averaging a staggering 8.5 yards per carry on his 51 carries, and he's already rushed for more in his senior year than he did in his first three years in the program combined. The difference? Gray is healthy, now, sure, and he's also gotten a lot more carries this year. But to listen to Jonas and Irish Running Backs Coach Tim Hinton--and to read between the lines a little--Gray has shown a mental toughness and work ethic that maybe weren't as strong in years past.
Jonas Gray has a phenomenal mix of speed and power. He possesses the speed to run past entire defenses, the moves to make them miss, and the power to plow ahead for a tough yard when he needs to. Cierre Wood sits above Jonas Gray on the depth chart, and he believes that he would win the Heisman if he had been blessed with Jonas Gray's body. Gray is built like a fire hydrant at 5'10" 230 lbs, but he runs like a gazelle in the open field.
Gray is extremely adept at attacking the edges of a defense. It seems to be this coaching staff's preference to let Cierre Wood be the slasher, while Gray has made his bigger plays on the edges with the outside zone play. If the offensive line sets the edge, Jonas will get to the sideline and you can probably strike up the band. Indeed Gray's speed and explosiveness have wowed Irish fans this season, probably more so than Gray's power. Gray ripped off a much-needed 79-yarder against Pitt, and he would likely have gashed Purdue for a 50+ yard run if he hadn't been dragged down by his facemask.
Gray also appears to have greatly improved his mental approach to the game. Jonas recently admitted that earlier in his career he would try to justify and explain away his on-field miscues. No longer. He now accepts the coaching with nothing more than a "yes, sir." Add to Jonas's newfound mental discipline a confidence, competitive fire, and drive for the endzone that is obvious in his play and body language.
Vision is an underrated aspect of Jonas's game. Despite getting very few carries before this year, Gray now always seems to hit the right hole, find the seam, follow his blocks, and to show "patience to the hole and explosion through the hole."
Jonas Gray has a small body of work. He only rushed for 309 yards in his first three seasons at Notre Dame. He's never carried the starter's load. Irish fans would like to see Jonas continue to play like he's been playing: explosively, decisively, and with great confidence. Gray needs to demonstrate that he's not just a flash in the pan, that he has the mental makeup and physical tools to sustain his success over the course of 12 or 13 game season. If he continues his high level of play, the sky would appear to be the limit.
In addition to just demonstrating consistency over a season, Jonas could perhaps use his power a little more frequently and with better effect. His off-season chat with Jerome Bettis appears to have ignited Gray's competitive spirit, but it may not have completely convinced Gray to run like a power back. No one will complain if Jonas continues to beat defenders to the edge and burn them down the sideline, but Gray occasionally leaves yards on the field. There was a run against Air Force where he tried to juke his defender instead of laying the hat. The defender dragged Gray down after a decent gain, a gain which looked like it could have been much bigger. I'd like to see Jonas attack defenders. Whip his upper body into the hit like Marion Barber did so well. When Jonas does decide to lower the boom, he seems content just to punish the defender and go down after contact. If Jonas pumped his legs a little more and used his stiff arm to separate himself from the defender, he might stay on his feet and get into the endzone in addition to leaving the defender wondering whether his mouthpiece is in the 13th or 14th row.
Going down after contact might also be a function of leaning too far forward. If Jonas can learn to deliver the knockout blow without getting off balance, he will likely be a much better power runner. He needs to refine the great tailback's innate ability to stay on his feet and get into the endzone after trucking the defender.
Jonas also hasn't really shown his chops as a receiver, but he hasn't been called on to catch many passes this year. It might also be a function of scheme that we haven't seen a lot of Gray in blitz pickup.
I hate to seem like I'm nitpicking Gray's game, but attention to detail could be the difference between a nice, 20-yard gain and a 40-yard touchdown; a few tweaks to his game could allow Jonas to make the jump from a good back to an elite back.
Key Matchup vs. Navy
Navy is 94th in total defense and 103rd against the run. The Irish offensive line should show up in a bad mood after having little success rushing the ball against USC. If the Irish offensive line plays like it should, Cierre Wood, Michael Floyd, and Tyler Eifert are the only people standing in between Jonas and a career day.
How will Notre Dame use Gray?
Early and often, Irish fans hope. Gray has left Irish fans salivating for more after nearly every game this season. He carried the ball only four times in last Saturday's night game versus USC, but he still managed to rush for 38 yards. Even subtracting his impressive 25-yard touchdown run, Gray averaged a respectable 4.33 yards per carry. Coach Kelly made no secret that Cierre Wood just didn't play with "poise" against USC, and Irish fans were again left wanting more of Jonas Gray. This staff has not likely soured on Cierre Wood after one sub-par performance, but look for Kelly and Company to get Gray involved early on in the Irish run game's bread and butter plays, the inside and outside zones. Jonas's physical skill set and mental approach to the game are now so impressive that Jonas Gray should have success no matter what he's asked to do at the tailback position on Saturday and for the rest of the season.