INDIANAPOLIS — Patriots owner Robert Kraft pulled Jonas Gray aside on Saturday morning shortly after Gray arrived at Gillette Stadium for the team’s walk-through and travel day to Indianapolis.
“It was kind of funny,” Gray recalled after Sunday night’s 42-20 win over the Colts. “I remember walking into the building, and Mr. Kraft pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re going to have a big game this week. So be ready.’ ”
Boy, was Gray ready.
Gray, playing in only his fourth career NFL game, had a night he’ll never forget. Gray was the Patriots’ enforcer, ramming the ball into the teeth of the Colts’ defense 38 times for 199 yards and four touchdowns in the Patriots’ blowout victory.
Gray had a pretty good idea that he would have a big role Sunday. The Patriots rushed for 234 yards against the Colts in last year’s playoffs, and practiced all last week with the goal of establishing the running game Sunday night. Rookie Cameron Fleming was used as a sixth offensive lineman on roughly 35 snaps, and the Colts never adjusted their defensive personnel to handle the Patriots’ extra beef up front.
But never could Gray have imagined 199 yards and four touchdowns on national TV, playing in front of his mother, brother, girlfriend, and several friends who made the drive down from his hometown of Detroit.
Gray’s four TDs set a Patriots regular-season record — LeGarrette Blount had four rushing touchdowns against the Colts in the playoffs last year — and Gray became the first NFL player since 1921 to score four rushing touchdowns after entering a game with zero.
“Sweet feeling, man,” Gray told a swarm of reporters. “Just, honestly, blessed.”
You won’t quite understand how sweet this was for Gray unless you know his whole back story. Sunday night’s game was Gray’s most action since his last high school season in 2007.
A four-star recruit and US Army All-American out of Detroit Country Day, Gray enrolled at Notre Dame with high hopes. But he was buried on the Fighting Irish depth chart for three years, not scoring a touchdown or even rushing the ball 10 times per game. His 38 carries Sunday night were more than he had in any of those seasons.
Gray finally got his chance as a senior in 2011 and had a few big games, including a three-touchdown day against Navy and 136 yards against Maryland. But in late November he tore his ACL against Boston College, ending his season.
The injury prevented any team from drafting Gray in 2012, but the Dolphins signed him to let him rehab and work his way back into shape on the practice squad. He spent the 2013 season on the Ravens’ practice squad, was signed by the Patriots last January, and spent the first six weeks on their practice squad before finally playing in his first NFL game against the Jets last month.
Throughout it all, Gray never complained.
“Notre Dame prepared me for this,” Gray said. “I look at it as, when I was on the practice squad, that I was working on my craft and I was getting better every day. Going against the starters, pretty much being a full-contact guy every day, that helped me.”
Gray finally got his opportunity when Stevan Ridley tore his ACL in Week 6. While the Patriots had other running backs on the roster, none of them possess the combination of size (5 feet 11 inches, 225 pounds) and speed that Gray has. So he leapfrogged Brandon Bolden, James White, and even Shane Vereen to become the Patriots’ new power back, the same role that Blount held last year.
Gray rushed 32 times for 131 yards in his first three games. Everyone on the team knew that Gray’s style fit the Patriots’ offense well, but no one saw Sunday night’s performance coming. Gray unofficially played 55 snaps, including penalties and kneel-downs. In his first three NFL games, the most he had played was 28 snaps against the Bears.
“Shoot, I think if everybody knew he was going to run for 200 yards, he would’ve been playing a long time ago,” right guard Ryan Wendell said. “But he’s a good back and he does good things in practice. I think everybody’s seen potential there, that’s why he’s on the team, and he’s done a great job of picking up the flag and carrying it.”
Gray more than proved his worth Sunday night, in a game in which Tom Brady clearly wasn’t at his best. Gray and the offensive line set the tone on the first drive of the game, gaining 77 of 89 yards on the ground as the Patriots jumped to a 7-0 lead.
The offensive line opened up huge holes for Gray and Vereen all night, but Gray created a lot of extra yards on his own, too. Gray had four runs of at least 14 yards, but his most impressive run may have been a 2-yarder early in the third quarter. It was third and 1 on the Colts’ 4-yard line, with the Patriots leading only 14-10 at the time. Gray was hit in the backfield, but he kept his legs churning and was able to fall forward just enough to get the first down. Tim Wright scored on the next play, and the Patriots never looked back.
Of Gray’s 38 runs, only one went for negative yardage, and only two were stuffed at the line of scrimmage. All four of his touchdowns came from inside the 5-yard line, a testament to his toughness.
“His running style is ‘forward,’ ” Wendell said. “Just falling forward and keeping those legs going.”
The Patriots need a running back like Gray to give the offense balance. He’s the only runner on the team who can churn out tough yards between the tackles and help Brady sell the play-action pass.
Gray, 24, can’t believe that after seven long years, everything is coming together for him.