A year of physical therapy while preparing for his professional career has transformed former Irish running back Jonas Gray from “meatball” to “bowling ball.”
Former Irish back Jonas Gray scored two short touchdowns against Jacksonville last week.
Gray, currently a member of the Miami Dolphins, said he’s not sure why the nicknames he gets from teammates are so, well, rounded. But he’s happy that the new moniker he’s picked up in south Florida is fittingly a little more dense than the meatball nickname he had while in South Bend.
The 230-pound pseudo-rookie spent last season on the unable to perform list while recovering from the anterior cruciate ligament he tore in his final home game at Notre Dame. He played his first game since Nov. 2011 earlier this month and picked up right where he stopped in college.
Gray ran for two touchdowns in his first two preseason games and gained 73 yards on his 21 total carries. He is gaining traction as a possible option for the short-yardage back on Miami’s 53-man roster and looks to have added the bulk he needs to do that job.
“I just pretty much toned up so I look bigger,” he said during a phone interview Thursday morning. “I’m way more cognizant of my nutrition than I was at Notre Dame. I know that’s going to help my health and help me last longer in the league. It helps some to add some weight where I needed it, too. I’m feeling healthy.”
The injury that pre-empted Gray’s breakout senior season — a 12-touchdown, 791-yard performance in 11.5 games — dropped him from the NFL Draft and into free agency where Miami picked him up last summer. Surgeon-to-the-stars Dr. James Andrews repaired the knee and Gray spent a full season rebuilding his strength.
He said he found some solace in watching players like Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles rushing for 1,500-plus yards last season. Both of them had their knees surgically repaired by Andrews around the same time as Gray.
The biggest obstacle remaining for Gray is getting past the instinct to protect himself differently when he’s running. He said he still is conscious of his vulnerability when he runs a swing route out of the backfield, which is what he was doing when his knee buckled against Boston College in 2011.
“I’m still trying to get that 100 percent complete confidence back,” he said. “The toughest thing mentally probably is whenever I’m in a position where it’s close or similar to where I got injured. …I thinking more than I need to sometimes, but it gets better every week.”
Gray made his first return to full-contact football on national television at the annual “Hall of Fame game” against the Dallas Cowboys in Canton, Ohio during the first week of August. He led the team with 41 yards on seven carries and also caught four passes for 35 more yards.
“I tried to stay away from thinking how I hadn’t played in so long. I just remember coming into the locker room and seeing my name on the back of my jersey,” Gray said. “I remembered all the hard work and everything it took to get back here and I’m just blessed.”
He followed up the Dallas game with 14 carries for 32 yards against Jacksonville last week. While he only gained 2.3 yards per carry, two of those were one-yard touchdown plunges that raised Gray’s profile as a possible goal line runner for the Dolphins.
Miami has at least four running backs battling for spots during the month of August. Second-year pro Lamar Miller is the team’s featured runner. Last year’s leading rusher, Daniel Thomas, fits more of the short-yardage role than a big-play threat. He had eight carries for 24 yards in the preseason.
That leaves rookie Mike Gillislee from Florida and Gray to prove they deserve a spot on the team. Gray said he played special teams even as a starting running back at Notre Dame, and he thinks he can help himself by jumping into those units in preseason.
“I have to," he said. “Plus, I'm excited to do it. Working with specials teams allows me to use my strength and my speed to help on those teams. I’m willing to do whatever they need me to.”
Gray has three more preseason games to continue to make a good first impression and show his knee injury is behind him. The Dolphins play Houston Saturday, where Gray will go against former backfield partner Cierre Wood, and then finish with games against Tampa Bay and New Orleans during the last week of August.