Former Notre Dame RB Jonas Gray suddenly in the spotlight

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

Late Sunday night, after the New England Patriots had delivered the Indianapolis Colts a 42-20 punch in the mouth, the star of the game stood in the Patriots' Lucas Oil Stadium locker room, humble and appreciative as a throng of reporters crowded around him, likely as curious about who he actually was as they were about his four-touchdown night.

The star? Jonas Gray. Yes, that Jonas Gray.

And?

"A little wide-eyed," said Boston Globe NFL/Patriots reporter Ben Volin, "and couldn't believe the instant celebrity that was happening to him."

Gray wasn't alone.

True, Gray had enjoyed a breakout senior season at Notre Dame in 2011 with 791 yards and 12 touchdowns. But there was a serious knee injury in his final home game, an NFL Draft that passed without his name being called, a year spent rehabbing and another year and a half spent on the practice squads of two different teams.

So yeah, for Jonas Gray to be the top storyline in Week 11 of the National Football League, and the coverboy of this week's Sports Illustrated, you can see why he was maybe a little wide-eyed.

But for those who covered him at Notre Dame, it's no surprise that Gray balanced excited with even-keeled.

"When your number's called," the 5-foot-10, 230-pound Gray said, "you go out there and execute."

Gray's number certainly was called Sunday night, 37 times in fact. He originally was credited with 199 rushing yards, but that was adjusted to 201 on Tuesday after a statistical error was discovered.

As big of a surprise as Gray was to football fans, his big night was predicted the day before the game by Patriots owner Robert Kraft. As Gray was walking into the team's practice facility on Saturday, Kraft told Gray that he was going to have a big game that weekend. And if Gray didn't know it before, the boss is always right.

"I guess a lot of people knew inside the building that they were going to try to feed Jonas Gray a lot," Volin said, "and that's why Robert Kraft went up to him and said that. And sure enough."

Gray, for the last couple of years, looked like anything but a sure thing. Through his first three years at Notre Dame, where he played alongside future NFL backs Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, he was largely an afterthought. Still, it was the experience at Notre Dame, playing against similarly-skilled athletes, that prepared Gray for the grind ahead.

"If you can do it there, you can do it anywhere," Derek Denham, Gray's uncle, said. "Honestly, I think that's what prepared him."

Then came the knee injury, an injury that could have crippled Gray's resolve. Instead, it strengthened it.

"He's not the first person to blow out a knee," Denham said.

Miami saw enough in Gray that it took a shot, and it was then that Volin, who was covering the Dolphins at the time, got an inkling that Gray had a shot.

"I think the fact that they kept him around just to rehab a knee injury shows you that they liked his potential," Volin said. "If they didn't believe in the kid, they wouldn't have let him sit around for a year and rehab on their dime."

Gray was cut right before training camp prior to the 2013 regular season, but signed on with the Ravens. In January, he became a Patriot.

Gray enjoyed a good training camp, but two running back slots were guaranteed, to scatback Shane Vereen and bruiser Stevan Ridley. With Gray and Ridley largely similar, Gray was put on the practice squad, where he was available for other teams to pluck.

"No one did, for whatever reason," Volin said. "I'm not sure why."

Gray spent the first six weeks this season on the practice squad before being activated following a Ridley injury. In four games, he's carried 69 times for 332 yards and the four touchdowns, a good chunk of those numbers coming Sunday night on national television.

"You could still tell he was running decisively, running hard, falling forward, averaging four-plus yards a carry," Volin said of Gray's pre-breakout performance work. "And then everything just kind of came together Sunday night against the Colts."

Denham is of the firm belief that his nephew won't change a thing now that he's become noticed. In fact, he says Gray's approach is to treat each practice rep like he's still a practice squad player trying to get noticed.

"I don't see him doing anything different," Denham said.

Gray, a Pontiac, Mich., native who grew up a Detroit Lions fan, will get a chance to face his hometown team this weekend. Gray said Monday that he used to go to games when the Lions played at the Pontiac Silverdome.

"I was always in the nosebleeds," said Gray, who was not made available to media outside of Boston this week, although a Monday locker room video was posted on the team website, "but I was glad to be there."

The Patriots are glad to have him. Volin cautioned that there might be games when Gray's role isn't as prominent as it was against the Colts, offering that the gameplan for future Sundays could dictate a different back being featured.

"He very well might go back to this game against the Lions and have 10 carries for 40 yards," Volin said, "but he's still their top power back, downhill runner, churning out the yards.

"In terms of the traditional running game, yeah, Jonas Gray is the guy."

New England Patriots running back Jonas Gray celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts Sunday night in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)