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Ryan Grant: Picking up where he left off

Heather VanHoegarden | Friday, November 12, 2004

As a sophomore, he was the man, and there were 1,085 reasons (or yards) why.

Then that title went to Julius Jones in 2003. Then it went to Darius Walker – until the original got healthy again. If there was ever any doubt what Ryan Grant means to the Irish football team, it was washed away when Grant returned from his hamstring injury this season.

With Grant in the game this season, the Irish are 5-1; without him, they are 1-2. If Irish fans haven’t recognized the importance of this senior just yet, then they are missing out.

Just ask Irish coach Tyrone Willingham.

“I think it is [easy to look over what Grant adds to the offense],” Willingham said. “First of all, you have to take into account the role of the senior, and the role of the senior is not just on the field. It’s what he provides off the field and in the locker room and the kind of play that we have got now with Ryan has been very solid for us in all areas. It was almost easier for many to forget that two years ago he was a 1,000-yard rusher.”

Willingham added that Grant’s low-key personality might overshadow his accomplishments on the field.

“It’s easy to overlook,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s his personality or the way he carries himself, but you have that tendency. But he adds a great deal to our football team in terms of pass protection and in terms of understanding pass routes where he can go, where he can’t go.”

1,000 yards to being a backup

As a sophomore, Grant became the seventh player in Notre Dame history to reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark in a season. He finished with 1,050 yards and was the first Irish rusher to achieve that mark since Autry Denson did in 1998. For Grant, it was quite the season after an elbow injury had sidelined him just a year before.

He carried the ball 261 times, averaging 4.2 yards per carry and scored nine touchdowns. Grant was the feature running back on a team that finished 10-3, starting all 13 games.

But in 2003, Julius Jones came back to Notre Dame after missing a year due to academic problems, and Grant saw his playing time decrease as he split time and carries with Jones.

Grant finished the season with 567 yards and three touchdowns, numbers far fewer than those of his sophomore year. Meanwhile, Jones shined, averaging over 100 yards per game, and racking up 1268 yards on the season to go along with his 10 touchdowns. Jones started seven of the Irish’s 12 games. Grant said he was frustrated, but he understood that there was nothing he could do.

“I think the frustration is there to a degree, but you have to understand, some of those things I had no control over,” the Nyack, N.Y. native said. “The things that I had control over, I think that might have been frustrating. [For example], if I’m not liking the way I’m running, then I need to change some things.”

‘Special’ leadership

Grant came into the 2004 season with high expectations for himself. He was ready for a season similar to that of 2002. With the goals he had in mind for himself, Grant thought he could finish in the top-five of all-time leading rushers at Notre Dame.

“My initial goal going into the season, if things would have worked out, I wouldn’t have gotten hurt and I would have stayed on track, I had the opportunity to be top-five [all-time rushing], and that was one of the goals I was looking at,” Grant said. “Whatever the case may be, I’d rather win games.”

Grant missed the first with a hamstring injury, something he never counted on coming into his last season in a Notre Dame uniform.

“It was frustrating more than disappointing just because I was feeling good, I felt like good things were going to happen and it was something I didn’t have control of,” Grant said. “It just happened. It wasn’t something I felt was coming on. It was just spur of the moment.”

With Grant the Irish have excelled, but without him they struggle at times, despite the emergence of true freshman Darius Walker. But Grant says he is finally getting healthy with two games to play, and even with the injury, he is not feeling sorry for himself.

“For the most part, especially with my injury, I had no control over that,” Grant said. “I did everything possible to get myself together and things happen for a reason. I might not understand that reason right away, but I’ll figure it out sometime. I just still need to be there for this team. I feel great now, so I just trying to finish up with the most positive things as possible.”

It is that unselfish attitude that has earned Grant the respect of his teammates and coaches alike, even in injury.

“I think Ryan has been special because in the manner in which he has had to work through this year,” Willingham said. “Great expectations coming into the season and then suffering the hamstring injury, having to fight back, partially out. His leadership has been special.”

Thus far, Grant has played in six games, rushing for five touchdowns and 354 yards. He has just 83 carries on the year, but he remains more concerned with his team.

“Part of me being a leader on this team I have to make sure all the other guys are mentally sharp,” Grant said. “I can’t worry about not getting the ball because I can’t let other guys on the team see that, feed off that. I have to make sure whoever’s in is taking care of business. So I feel like that is part of my role on this team.”

Willingham has always acknowledged the importance of Grant to this Irish team, despite the ups and downs of his career.

“What Ryan has done, and I think what he might say, if I could say it for him, is that the Notre Dame experience has helped make him a man and it’s helped mature him and learn to really understand the ups and downs of football and hopefully he can take that into life,” Willingham said.

And Grant remains the consummate team player.

“There were other ways I found I needed to help the team [after I got hurt],” he said. “I want to get wins more than yardage, so the frustrating part is maybe not having the seasons more than [yards]. I want to contribute in any way to the team.”

One last time

For Grant and the seniors, Saturday is the last time they will get to play together at Notre Dame Stadium. Grant said he wants this win more than anything.

“I feel like with everything I’ve gone through, it’s gone fast, my career here,” Grant said. “But I still feel like I’m mature and I am ready to move on and take that next step.

“I feel like I have taken advantage of the time I’ve spent with these guys – the good and bad. I appreciate the times I’ve had with them, and I lay it on the line for them – they’re my brothers for life.”

Grant also said he has really enjoyed the four years he’s spent at Notre Dame, as it was everything he hoped for and more.

“It’s been great, even with all the ups and downs of the teams I’ve played on,” Grant said. “To go out with these guys and fight every week and the sweat that goes into playing on Saturdays has been great. I’ve seen a lot of great things and a lot of great people, and I appreciate everyday I’ve had with them.”