– Manti Te'o
In the quote above, the Notre Dame sophomore linebacker and emerging team leader was referring to, among other changes, the organization of the team's locker spaces.
Cleanliness doesn't guarantee success, and might not serve as a crucial starting point for every player (my guess is more than a few former All Americans and national champions had unkempt lockers), but junior running back Jonas Gray is one emerging competitor that might benefit from such attention to detail.
The team's most talented combo back (power and speed) has yet to score a touchdown, rush for more than 61 yards (that career-best set in mop-up duty vs. a winless Washington team), or earn double-digit carries in a game over two collegiate seasons.
Best known for two game-changing fumbles (Navy in '08 and Michigan in '09) and a season altering missed block (Michigan State '09), Gray possesses nearly every skill set necessary to emerge as a feature running back. The added benefit of a new head coach and staff serves as a Get-Out-of-the-Doghouse-Free card (Gray sat for the month of November last season) for the formerly celebrated runner from Detroit Country Day.
But for every promising run off-tackle last season there was a brain-cramp resulting in a dropped backfield pitch. For every extra yard gained after the catch there was a missed assignment, or the tentative need to cover the ball with two hands for fear of another lost fumble.
Speed, compact size, patience setting up blocks, balance after contact…Gray looks the part of a feature ‘back. Maintaining focus on each snap and capitalizing on sometimes limited opportunity will determine if Year 3 serves as a breakout performance for the junior tailback or if the Irish running game becomes a two-man show next fall.
Gray's Season OutlookGray runs through arm tackles and maintains a low pad level; he shows speed to the outside and can get past would-be tacklers with a well-executed stiff arm; and while he looks a little stiff on his cuts (or at least less-fluid than underclassman Cierre Wood) Gray is nonetheless underrated in the open field, rarely falling on initial contact and routinely bouncing off defenders in space.
Conversely, he hasn't earned a carry in the month of November (9 games) outside of mop-up duty vs. Navy in 2008, a game in which his then non-descript fumble inside the Midshipmen 5-yard line nearly turned the contest around in a 27-21 hang-on victory by the Irish.
Clearly, Gray needs to secure the football to earn carries with reliable senior Armando Allen and the promising redshirt-sophomore Wood serving as his competition. (It's hard for a ‘back to shake the reputation as a "fumbler" and the leash couldn't be shorter for Gray in this regard.)
If Gray has a fault as a pure runner it's his tendency to occasionally pause at the line of scrimmage (senior fullback Robert Hughes shares the characteristic). But in the spring-ending Blue Gold Game, Gray appeared to be a back that could produce workhorse efforts in 2010, chewing up yards after contact and showing great balance in traffic.
There's no chance a healthy, focused Gray won't eclipse his career-best carry of 19 yards (set vs. Washington in '08 and Nevada in '09) multiple times in 2010.
Though he's unlikely to earn a Game One starting job (Allen has earned the trust of the new staff as he did the former), Gray will have a chance to (at least) double his career-high in terms of rushing attempts and will receive similar opportunity in the backfield's expanded passing role passing game role fall.
Holding onto the football and maintaining focus snap-to-snap is step one. Gray's untapped skills should take care of the rest.
Gray's Best Moments of 2009:
- Nevada: Gray took a toss sweep right for 19-yards and what appeared to be a diving touchdown, gracing the pylon before his foot landed out of bounds. He was marked just short, but the right-side burst showed Gray expertly setting following his pulling blockers (former center Eric Olsen) with a sharp cut inside and burst of speed down the sidelines.
- Michigan State: With the Irish leading by 3 midway through the second quarter, Gray took a handoff off left tackle for a 15-yard gain down to the Spartans' 7-yard line. Again showing impressive vision, Gray cut inside a Paul Duncan block, ran through an ankle tackle and delivered a de-cleating stiff arm to safety Trenton Robinson to gain 10 extra yards to the outside.
- Purdue: In his only career start, Gray caught two first quarter passes totaling 42 yards: On a 19-yard screen reception, Gray showed patience slipping out of the backfield, then set-up a lead block by guard Trevor Robinson with a slight cut inside to draw the defender, before bouncing outside through an arm tackle on the sidelines and cutting back on the edge to pick up an extra 7 yards, running through a double-team tackle along the way. Later in the quarter, Gray caught a flair pass in the right flat and outran Boilermakers linebacker Joe Holland for 23 yards and an Irish first down.
Gray's Moments to Forget in 2009:
- At Michigan: Leading 20-17 early in the third quarter, Gray fumbled a clean handoff from QB Jimmy Clausen as unblocked blitzing safety Stevie Brown delivered a solid, but not crushing hit on the sophomore runner deep in the Irish backfield. The turnover was Notre Dame's first of the season and led to a go-ahead touchdown by the Wolverines in the 38-34 defeat.
- Michigan State: In pass protection late in the 2nd Quarter, Gray whiffed (after hesitating) on his assignment vs. LB Eric Gordon on an inside blitz. Gordon's unmolested rush forced Jimmy Clausen into an awkward "surrender" sack in which the red-hot QB suffered a severe toe injury that hampered him for the remainder of the season.
- November: Gray did not play in the season's final four games (all losses) after eight carries (and a fumbled pitch which he recovered) vs. Washington State the previous week. He had appeared in each of the team's previous eight September and October contests.
Note: Statistical Projections will appear for each player in our Unit Rankings series throughout the summer. We'll have more on Gray, along with four other Irish players, in tomorrow's featured column: Catching a Break.