Jonas Gray (right) did enough in the preseason to end up landing with the Patriots. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
FOXBORO — It was a long journey to the NFL for running back Jonas Gray, and so when he reached the huddle with the rest of the offense last Thursday night against the Jets, he said he took a second to look around and fully comprehend what was happening.
Of course, you could excuse Gray for drinking in the moment. The undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame — who suffered a knee injury as a senior against Boston College in 2012 — had spent two years bouncing from the Miami practice squad to the Baltimore practice squad before signing with the Patriots in January.
He led the team in touches over the course of the preseason, but he was released by New England as part of the final cuts. The Patriots then brought him back via the practice squad, and after starter Stevan Ridley went down with a season-ending knee injury earlier this month, he was promoted to the active roster. That set the stage for his NFL debut on Thursday against the Jets.
“You know what? I always look at it like I’m just writing a great story,” the 24-year-old Gray said after practice on Tuesday. “Writing one hell of a story — a page turner.”
For Gray, his story started to take shape in South Bend, where, as a collegian, he totaled 1,100 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns in 34 games with the Fighting Irish from 2009-2011. The latest chapter saw him finish his New England debut with three carries for 12 yards on 12 snaps. The numbers weren’t overwhelming, but enough to warrant praise from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
“He did a good job of running hard,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said of Gray. “He runs behind his pads, stays low, not the easiest guy in the world to bring to the ground because he’s a thick guy with the ball. He stepped in there and picked up the blitz a couple times the other night.
“[He's] a young guy who’s eager to do whatever is asked of him, and we’ll continue to work with him and see if we can’t continue to build on what we did the other night with him.”
“It felt good to be out there in my first professional regular-season game,” the 5-foot-10, 230-pounder said after practice Tuesday. “I tried not to overhype myself or make the big lights seem too big. The first play I got in the game, I just wanted to make sure I was going downhill and be physical and try to set the tone. That’s pretty much what I’m going to try every week.”
One area where he was able to really distinguish himself was in blitz pickup. He said that was an area where he really felt prepared, thanks in large part to his work as a practice squadder.
“On the practice squad, you’re kind of a full-go player as a running back, especially when you’re in full pads.” Gray said. “So going against the starters all the time, guys like Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, they never give me a break, so that’s helped prepare me for opportunities I get in a game.”
Of course, there’s no rest around Foxboro. The back, who says he tries to be the last one at Gillette Stadium every night, has multiple responsibilities on his plate this week. He’ll not only have to get into his playbook to prepare for the Bears, but because he’s the low man on the totem pole, he’ll be the one assigned to scout team duty to give the starters a feel of what they’ll be facing when it comes to Chicago’s Matt Forte.
“It’s crazy. I just do whatever I can with the opportunities I’m given,” said Gray, who has also played the role of Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson at practice this year. “My support staff and the people around me, they make sure that I don’t overhype myself and I just come out and prepare the same way.”