NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Jonas Gray waited. The Pontiac, Mich., native found himself in a crowded Notre Dame backfield consisting of Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, James Aldridge and Theo Riddick, garnering a total of 75 carries over his first three years in South Bend.
But he found his way into an expanded role as a Fighting Irish senior in 2011, filtering in behind Cierre Wood to take 114 carries 791 yards on his way to the first 12 touchdowns of his collegiate career. With those 12 scores, though, Gray’s collegiate career was over.
He had started five games and appeared in 34. Yet as the 2012 NFL draft got underway that April, Gray would have to wait once more. His name was not among the 253 players and 19 running backs selected over three days and seven rounds.
It was among the Miami Dolphins’ undrafted signings, instead. Only the 5’10”, 230-pound undrafted rookie would never play in a regular-season game for Miami; he was placed on the physically unable to perform list with a knee injury during the 2012 training camp. He was later released following the 2013 training camp.
Gray cleared waivers and joined the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad, where he remained for the duration of the campaign. But when the Ravens’ campaign ended in Week 17, so did Gray’s tenure with the team.
He embarked on a new tenure with the New England Patriots on Jan. 2, 2014. The reserve/futures signee proceeded to hold onto a spot on the 90-man roster, then 75-man roster seven months later. He played in all four preseason games, and led the team with 142 rushing yards on 37 carries.
Gray continued to hold on, even after he was waived during August’s final cuts. And when Stevan Ridley was lost for the season only six weeks in, the 24-year-old was promoted from the practice squad and handled an opportunity he never had in Miami or Baltimore.
He got to play.
Gray was active and on the Gillette Stadium field for the opening kickoff against the New York Jets on Thursday night, while fourth-round pick James White was not. And with 6:24 left in the first quarter, the former rookie free agent was on the field for the Patriots’ second offensive drive of the game.
After providing blitz pickup on an incomplete pass intended for tight end Rob Gronkowski in the seam, No. 35 got the call for an off-tackle run on 2nd-and-10.
Gray gained steam as he took the exchange from quarterback Tom Brady, carving upfield between the blocks paved by the two tight ends and New England’s unbalanced line. The run gained five, and it was the first he’d had at any level of the regular season since 2011.
He bounced up from the turf, revealing the body language of a violent runner who wanted more; a violent runner who thought of what could have been more.
Gray stomped his feet as he turned back to the huddle, just before leaving for the sidelines. Shane Vereen entered in his place for third down, but Gray would return later in the first for a chip block from Ace personnel. And he did the same in the second quarter, helping out in pass protection while also running a string of outlet routes.
At the 7:39 mark before halftime on a 1st-and-10, his number was called again. This time, it was from a two-back, one-tight end showcase – I-formation with twin receivers left.
Gray got the ball and made his way through the left A-gap, where left guard Jordan Devey and center Ryan Wendell were clearing. Yet the room between them was not there, and Gray fell into a pile of rubble after three yards.
Vereen filed back in as the second quarter drew to a close, continuing to serve as the lead back as well as the primary third-down, two-minute and goal-line option for his versatility as a receiver.
As the second half opened, Gray was seldom seen. He logged one snap in the third, operating out of pass protection in a jumbo “22” set to absorb linebacker David Harris.
As the fourth quarter got underway, he played just three more snaps. And the final one was ultimately New England’s final offensive play of the game.
Up 27-25 at the two-minute warning, Gray stepped on to trim the clock on 3rd-and-13 from a balanced I-formation. From there, he forged towards the right hash, tracking the paths of fullback James Develin and the pulling Devey.
He ran hard and decisively, bending low through the line and the contact that resided there. He didn’t need the lateral quickness to do so. All he needed was one cut to go.
It picked up four. Ryan Allen came on to punt with 1:16 to go and the Patriots hung on. Gray finished with three carries for 12 yards.
It is a workload he’s hoping to expand moving forward, however tentative his future with the organization may be. Even so, there’s reason to believe Week 7 was not the last of him. There’s reason to believe he’ll be back.
Gray was in for one third down over his 11 snaps – as was fellow reserve back Brandon Bolden – but his purpose on his 10 early downs could be an important subtlety on road ahead for him. His size did not limit him to running situations; he performed well in blocking assignments. His utilization was not limited to one personnel grouping; he played two snaps in “11,” five in “12,” two from “21” and two from the full-house “22.”
Despite the diversity, the Patriots’ rushing carousel was collectively limited through each variety showcased. The offense ran the ball only 15 times for 63 yards versus New York, and only two of the offense’s 14 first downs were acquired via the ground game.
But while it was a quiet game for the backfield, and a quiet debut for Gray, it was meaningful. It was one he’d been waiting to make for a long time.