After earning requisite mop-up carries as a freshman, Gray appeared to ascend to the No. 2 running back role in September of his sophomore season, 2009. But that early opportunity was lost in the wake of a costly fumble (at Michigan), an even more damaging missed blitz pickup that felled quarterback Jimmy Clausen (Michigan State). An inconsistent effort in his only start one week later at Purdue reduced his role again, and Gray earned but nine carries over the final eight contests of 2009, failing to appear during the season's final month.
But Year 4 under the Dome provides a fresh start for the talented senior. Gone are the persistent ball-security issues of his first two seasons when four of Gray's 63 total touches ended with a fumbled football. (Gray did not fumble in 20 touches last year.)
Gone too, according to his coaches, is Gray's indecision in pass protection and an inconsistent approach toward the role of the 5'11" 225-pound bowling ball: to run with power.
"Jonas is becoming a more complete back," offensive coordinator Charley Molnar offered Wednesday following the 20th of 22 practices leading up to game week. "He's catching the ball better, running harder, and making that same transformation that Robert Hughes had to make (last year) in that he understands his body and to take on and relish the role of being the big ‘back in our offense."
Gray's transformation won't be officially complete until at least early December, as plenty of ‘backs have run with power early, only to fade down the stretch or prove inconsistent when offered extended playing time. But the senior noted that he was successful in his final August camp in preparation for the coming months.
"I accomplished a lot (in camp). I wanted to become a more physical player and take that mentality to practice every day, but also to protect my body when I'm running," Gray noted of the need to both absorb and deliver punishment. "I'm very comfortable with the offense, and we have great continuity throughout the offense."
As for his current role as Wood's backup, Gray offered, "I believe in coach Kelly's ability to put us in position to win, and I'm down with whatever he's down with."
A conscientious and welcomed voiceAlso firmly planted in Gray's corner is position coach, Tim Hinton.
"His attitude is great and no one outworked him this summer," Hinton offered midway through camp. "No one runs out harder on our football team every day in practice and most of the time, when you work like that you get rewarded for it.
"I sure hope he rewards himself because he's capable of being a very, very good football player. I hope on game day he plays like I know (he's capable). I'm a fan of his because of how he's worked and prepared himself."
Gray appreciates Hinton's persistence and even learned to appreciate the voice that echoed through his helmet before, during, and after every spring and summer practice.
"Coach Hinton does a great job of instilling that mentality in me, even in practice," Gray said. "He'll tell me: ‘We have these five live periods, I'm going to put you in for all five of these and I want you to do this and this and this.' He helps me bring that mentality each day, and that's a big thing for me.
Of Hinton's constant reminders, Gray noted, "Always, it's a good voice and it's a voice that I need. It's a positive thing."
In search of: PaydirtGray's logged 75 carries from scrimmage over his first three seasons. He's had runs of 36 yards that ended inside the opponent's 10-yard line; another of 19 that ended on Nevada's pylon, but was marked a foot short of the goal line.
Remarkably, he's yet to score his first college touchdown.
"The bottom line is, he's a guy that is God-gifted, but every kid develops at different times and at different stages in their lives," Hinton explained. "It has no bearing on how they'll be at the end, but maybe this is just his time."
Cierre Wood was the team's No. 2 ‘back at this point last season. Due largely to injuries to starter Armando Allen, Wood ascended to the No. 1 role and led the team in rushing yards, yards per carry, and was second in rushing scores.
It would be better for the program, its fans, and certainly for Wood (as well as Gray) if Wood performs at a high level for the next 12 weeks, with Gray pushing him all the while.
What then is a high-end projection for a true No. 2 running back in the 2011 offense?
Travis Thomas' efforts circa 2005 might provide the best example:
With sophomore Darius Walker the unquestioned starter for 12 weeks (Walker posted rushing plus receiving totals of 296 touches, 1,547 yards from scrimmage, 11 total TD), Thomas nonetheless carved a niche in relief, finishing with 63 carries for 248 yards and 5 touchdowns. Considering that offense also employed a multi-talented fullback in Rashon Powers-Neal (31 carries/6 TD) for six games, even more opportunity should await Gray, assuming he can capitalize.
"Jonas will play when we believe Cierre needs a blow," Kelly said earlier this week. "Cierre is our featured guy; Jonas will play a role, and that role will expand based upon his production, quite frankly.
"He's had a great camp," Kelly continued. "I think he's going to have to take advantage of his opportunities. As we move forward, that will dictate the amount of playing time he gets. Right now he's going to give Cierre a blow. We're very confident in his abilities. He'll get more reps and playing time as he produces."
After three seasons of diminished returns, that's all Gray or any other unproven competitor can ask for.
"It's nice to know that (role). I trust in him," Gray said of Kelly. "And when he sees something in me, it puts a lot of positive energy in me. With him behind me, I can do some things well."