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Brian Kelly sees improvement, leadership in Gray

Andrew Owens | Friday, August 26, 2011

In his first three seasons with the program, senior Irish running back Jonas Gray did not see much action, only cracked the starting lineup once, and has been buried on the depth chart while Notre Dame relied on other running backs to produce.

But this year is different.

With Gray and junior Cierre Wood the only returning scholarship running backs, the coaching staff has needed the senior from Pontiac, Mich., to step it up in his final campaign with the Irish and show the ropes to two freshman running backs, George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel.

“Jonas has been really good,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “[Gray and Wood] have done everything because they know they need [the freshmen]. So they’ve been really good in teaching those two young guys in getting them up to speed.”

The role is a new one for Gray, who has battled recurring issues with fumbling and pass protection during his career. Despite being ranked the fourth-best running back in the country in the Class of 2008 by Rivals.com, Gray has garnered only 309 rushing yards and no touchdowns in his three seasons.

But the second year in Kelly’s system has opened his eyes, and he said he feels much more confident heading into a 2011 season that is just eight days away.

“It’s a huge turnaround,” Gray said. “What [being in year two] does is it gives me the ability to see a lot of things I wouldn’t see normally. In year one I would get the play and all these different things would go through my head. Right away now when I get the play it’s better … There were some holes in the process, but now it’s there and it’s starting to show up.”

According to offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, Gray has not only seized the No. 2 running back position, but he has also made a bid for the starting position since the end of last season.

“I think he did a good job, I really do,” Molnar said. “I think he pressured Cierre throughout summer camp and made Cierre come to work every day. Jonas got a fair chance to compete for the job, and I think [Kelly] feels right now and we feel as an offensive staff that right now Cierre is ahead of Jonas, but the first series or second series of the game, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jonas Gray in there.”

Ideally, Gray can serve as a change-of-pace back for the Irish. Whereas Wood is more of an outside runner who utilizes speed, Notre Dame hopes Gray can be effective between the tackles.

“It’s fun watching him improve coaching the offensive line,” offensive line coach and running game coordinator Ed Warriner said. “When those backs hit those holes and they make extra yardage — they can make you ride a lot on the offensive line.

“Jonas is running aggressively, has more confidence and is one of the more improved guys in my opinion on offense, and it will be good for us overall.”

The trust Gray has put in the coaching staff has resulted in his improved performance, Warriner said.

“I believe in Coach Kelly’s ability to put me in the right position to win and our team in the right positions to win,” Gray said. “So I trust when he says something to me it puts a lot of — I wouldn’t call it pressure — but a lot of positive energy in me.”