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Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray add new dimension to Notre Dame offense

Allan Joseph | Thursday, September 29, 2011

In 2010, Notre Dame’s offense was often one-dimensional, relying almost exclusively on the passing game for much of the season. This year, however, junior running back Cierre Wood and senior running back Jonas Gray have provided a tandem ground attack that has completely erased any memories of a poor rushing offense last year.

“A year ago, we were begging for 96 yards,” Irish running backs coach Tim Hinton said. “Both backs are doing a great job of seeing things and getting some acceleration. Right now we’re running with more force and power than a year ago.

“I like the one-two punch and I want to continue to use it that way.”

After biding his time behind Armando Allen and Robert Hughes on the depth chart, Wood has finally come into his own as the primary back in the Irish offense.

“It’s different for him. He’s never had to do it at the college level,” Hinton said. “Sundays he’s sore and tired. You take in the consideration of the academic load, you take in the mental preparation to get ready for a game, the physical drain on your body, and then to go out and practice, all of those things – there’s a lot that goes into college football. The bottom line is that he’s learning to do it better every day.”

Wood attributes his success to an increased understanding of the tactical nature of the running game.

“I got in the classroom with Coach Hinton learning the Xs and Os because that’s a vital part when it comes to the game,” Wood said. “There’s a lot of football players who have speed and talent who can run and whatnot, but if you always give yourself that extra help, it just makes you a better player, so that’s what I did.”

While Hinton agrees with Wood, he also believes his feature back has a ways to go.

“He’s a better student of the game,” Hinton said. “We’re not perfect there. We’ve certainly got a long way to go to get to the standards that I want him.

“We want him to become an every-down back: an every-down protection back, and an every-down receiving back … He’s learning how to do that every-down back stuff.”

As the featured back, Wood has changed the way he prepares during the week to care for his body and last a full season — but that has not come easily to him.

“Last year I really wasn’t a cold-plunge person but it really does work,” Wood said. “I still hate it to this day. When I get in I put a towel over my head and I just bite the towel until I can’t feel anything anymore. I’m going to hate it as long as they have a cold-plunge.”

Wood’s most important attribute, however, may have been with him all along.

“It takes great confidence to play this game — not cockiness, but confidence,” Hinton said. “I don’t know that Cierre’s ever lacked confidence.”

Wood’s backfield stablemate, Jonas Gray, had a rocky start to the season when he fumbled just outside the end zone in Notre Dame’s season-opening loss to South Florida — and his fumble was returned for a touchdown that would set the Irish back early. While frustrated at the time, Hinton knew he had to give Gray an opportunity to redeem himself.

“The one thing you tell every player right off the bat is that not one play’s ever going to win the game, not one play’s ever going to lose the game,” Hinton said. “We need him to go, so we had to put confidence back in him. Sometimes you’ve got to live with those mistakes. … It has happened to everyone, what you’ve got to do is overcome it. The next play is the most important play.”

With a 79-yard touchdown run in last week’s 15-12 victory over Pittsburgh, Gray overcame his mistake with a crucial score. The touchdown scamper allowed Gray to display a speed belied by his power-back mentality.

“He was juiced up to make it happen,” Hinton said. “He made it happen. He’s kind of struggled on making one miss, and he did a great job this time on making one miss.”

While Wood and Gray have seen a significant amount of action, freshmen George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel have not seen the field, though not for lack of ability.

“The thing at Notre Dame is that you play a lot of good people early. The games have all been tight,” Hinton said. “As a coach, you know the mistakes freshmen normally make early, and you just don’t want to accept those in games as tight as ours. They both would do an outstanding job if asked to go in a game.”

As the Irish enter the meat of their schedule, Hinton expects opponents will begin to focus on Wood and Gray.

“The more they have success, the more they have a bulls-eye on their chest, and the more they’ve got to raise their game,” Hinton said.

However, Hinton said he believes his focus on the fundamentals will allow his backs to overcome any increased attention.

“You’ve got to go out every day and work on the little things that take you through game 12 and hopefully into game 13 and the things that you want to accomplish,” he said. “We’re every day trying to work on the fundamental things that will make us better. … If we do those things, the runs will take care of themselves.