For a junior that first set foot on campus in January 2007, Gary Gray's body of work is a bit scarce at this point in his Irish career. The former four-star recruit first battled injury (a broken arm as a freshman in the spring followed by a shoulder injury in fall camp) resulted in a redshirt season in 2007. He then appeared to cement a consistent role last September, beginning in Week Two with a solid second half performance vs. Michigan (including an interception and 41-yard return) and confident overall play vs. both Michigan State and Purdue on consecutive Saturdays. But a personal issue affected Gray's focus from mid-October until the late-season matchup at USC (a game in which Gray recorded one of his two '08 interceptions). That issue was finally resolved prior to the Hawaii Bowl, causing Gray to miss the trip to the islands and the spring semester.But Gray, as expected and promised, returned to campus this summer to join his teammates for informal workouts and is again expected to be a key cog in the Irish pass defense, and to bolster a secondary that rivals the 1993 group as the school's deepest unit in recent history.
Gray's Season Outlook:One member of the aforementioned 1993 team that can probably relate to Gray's delay in consistent production is former FS/RB Willie Clark. Clark was the fastest man on campus from 1991-93 (Rocket had him beaten in '90). He started eight games at two positions, even posting 11 tackles in the 1991 Orange Bowl (a de facto National Title game) vs. Colorado. The promising athlete and dual-threat never approached his full potential in an Irish uniform but was a third round draft pick in 1994 and played five seasons for the Chargers and Eagles.
Before Clark was CB Rod Smith (1988-91), a phenomenal athlete by any measure; one who had his moments in an Irish uniform as a starter, but never a star (he nonetheless forged an eight-year NFL career at CB as a second-round draft pick of the New England Patriots).
Of course, these mildly cautionary tales need not be apply to Gray, a DB with three years of eligibility remaining, and a player who should challenge for playing time at the team's deepest position as well as in the defense's dime (if not nickel) sets.
I'm projecting a major impact by Gray from an admittedly small body of work. Unlike the "athlete-turned-CB" examples of Clark and Smith, Gray is a fluid, natural cover corner, and appears to be comfortable in a variety of zone coverages. In the late 80s and early 90s, fans were often told that Notre Dame's second unit would start for more than half the nation. That hasn't been true for more than a decade at the school, but it definitely applies at cornerback in 2009.
Gray showed three key traits for any successful corner in just over 63 minutes of game action last season:
- The ability to break on the ball (Purdue and Syracuse examples below).
- A willingness to come up and make the tackle (Michigan State and USC), with 15 solo stops in what was basically sporadic appearances in 10 halves of football.
- A knowledge and knack for zone coverages (Michigan and USC).
Gray's effort this season is the first step toward what could be an outstanding, if not instantly impactful Irish career on the corner. Rather than worry about cautionary tales, Gray should look up another Irish player who battled back from adversity, twice. This all-time Irish great missed his entire freshman season of 1987 (academics); returned to earn All America honors in 1988 for the National Champions (while beating out the team's senior captain and 1987 All American for a starting job…imagine that development today). He then missed the entire 1989 season due to disciplinary action and returned (again) to lead the 1990 Irish to within a bad clip call of another national title - again earning All America honors.
Yes, if Gary Gray's delayed career path resembles LB Michael Stonebreaker's, Irish fans are in for a treat through 2011.
Gray's Best Moments of 2008:
- Michigan: Gray recorded his first career interception in his first extended appearance. Late in the fourth quarter, Gray showed perfect "bail technique" at right cornerback, dropping into quarters coverage (the field divided into four by the two S and two CB) to read a deep pass and bring back the interception 41 yards to seal the Irish 35-17 win.
- Michigan State – two plays: Playing over the slot in man coverage, Gray stayed with WR Deon Curry on a slant-out route to limit the play to four yards (and an eventual punt). Later, trailing 3-0, Gray came out of coverage to make a stop on MSU QB Brian Hoyer on 3rd and 8, forcing a Spartans punt.
- Purdue: Again at RCB, Gray sat on a hook route to break up a 3rd and 3 pass (the Irish held on 4th down) with 8:40 remaining, effectively ending the Boiler's final threat in the 38-21 win.
- Syracuse: With the Irish leading 23-10, in what appeared to be man coverage, Gray recovered to knock away a deep corner pass with a diving break up early in the 4th quarter.
- USC: Consecutive plays at RCB, the first on 2nd and 9 to hold RB Stafon Johnson to a gain of three yards. Then on 3rd and 6, Gray fought through a pick to hold WR Ronald Johnson to gain of 4 and force a Trojans punt.
Gray's Moments to Forget in 2008:
- Michigan State: Trailing 13-7 early in the 4th Quarter, Gray (playing LCB) and Robert Blanton (over the slot) blew a coverage defending a post/out combo route, allowing Mark Dell a 28-yard gain.
- Purdue: Trailing 7-0, Gray gave up back-to-back gains of 12 (on first down) and eight yards early in the 2nd Quarter. The first in tight man coverage in which he was beaten by an inside move off the line; the second on a quick look pass in which he allowed too big of a cushion for an 8-yard gain and a missed tackle down the sideline.
- USC: Lined up at LCB and playing deep third coverage, Gray was beaten by WR Patrick Turner on a post-comeback for an 18-yard grab (and another 12 yards after the catch) on 3rd and 15. He later showed solid coverage while allowing an 8-yard gain on an (completed) out route to Turner. Gray bounced back with an interception of backup QB Mitch Mustain (appeared to be quarters coverage) on an underthrown deep ball late in the contest.
July 16 Update on Gary Gray:Irish Eyes has been informed that Gray spent his time away from the program enduring most of the same workouts as did the Irish players, both in an isolated situation and with former high school teammates (when available) and is reportedly in better overall condition than at the end of his sophomore season.
We're told to expect a focused, competitive player – a student appreciative of the opportunity he has at the University, and one that never questioned he'd return to Notre Dame.
As you might expect, Gray will have to earn his way back onto the field at a loaded CB position, but with the preponderance of spread and passing offenses, four to five Irish CB should receive significant minutes in 2009.