An even greater one-season transformation occurred for another Holtz All-America, Frank Stams, who began his career as a struggling fullback, became an oft-injured backup linebacker in his later years, then earned first team All-America status at rush end for the national champion Irish in 1988 prior to graduation.
Fours seasons later, current Notre Dame Monogram Club president Reggie Brooks emerged from depth chart afterthought in his junior season of 1991 to become the best single season running back in program history as a senior in '92.
Nearly a decade later, former walk-on Shane Walton proved solid and worthy of a scholarship as a 2001 senior cornerback. He then took a turn toward the spectacular as a 5th-year player in ‘02, finishing third in the voting for the nation's Nagurski Award recognizing the top defensive player.
Three years later in 2005, Brady Quinn went from inconsistent, scattershot signal-caller as a sophomore, to fourth in the Heisman Trophy ballot as a true junior. That same season, classmate Jeff Samardzija did him one better, emerging from the bench and obscurity to rank as arguably the nation's best wide receiver, and easily its most surprising player.
Joining such hallowed ground this season was Notre Dame running back Jonas Gray. He might not have topped the quintet listed above with his breakout senior season, but the fact that his name is now linked to those above is a remarkable, unforeseen event and the best story of the 2011 season.
Gray is the landslide winner for our 2011 Most Improved Irish award – he'll be the same when the team officially reveals the honor next Friday at its second annual Awards Banquet.
Gray's 6.9 yards-per-carry average ranks sixth in program history and his 12 touchdowns – famously the first 12 of his four-year Irish career – led Kelly's second Irish squad by a wide margin. Each was scored between Week Four (Pittsburgh) and Week 11 (Boston College).
Following his always referenced fumble vs. South Florida in the season opener, Gray averaged the following yards-per-carry, per contest:
- 6.6 on 3 carries (USF post-fumble)
- 11.0 on 6 carries (Michigan)
- 5.41 on 12 carries (MSU)
- 28.0 on 3 carries with a TD (Pittsburgh)
- 6.2 on 15 carries with a TD (Purdue)
- 9.8 on 7 carries with two TD (Air Force)
- 9.5 on 4 carries with a TD (USC)
- 5.7 on 12 carries with 3 TD (Navy – each TD plunge greatly lowered his average)
- 4.8 on 19 carries with a TD (Wake Forest)
- 6.4 on 21 carries with a 2 TD (Maryland)
- 5.5 on 11 carries with a TD (Boston College - during which he endured a season-ending knee injury).
Gray's production won't be replaced next fall…his calm, team-wide leadership and admirable work ethic – both of which admittedly emerged as priorities later in his career – are unlikely to be duplicated, either.
For Gray and Irish fans alike, his senior season was a one-year ride worth the wait.
(Of note: Only Brooks and Gray among the players above did not benefit from a coaching change for his breakout campaign.)
Next in our series – The final installment in the four-part series, and a first look at the Most Improved Irish…of 2012