Pregame notes: Jonas, Recruiting, and the road back

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As always, we’ll be with you tonight for a live-blog of the Notre Dame – Wake Forest tilt. But before we get there, let’s toss a few interesting links your way as we get ready for a game the Irish’s battle on Tobacco Road.

The Observer’s Allan Joseph had a really nice profile on Jonas Gray, who has been the David Ruffer of this season — a sportswriter’s dream. Gray’s emergence this season has been well-chronicled, and his surprising chase of George Gipp’s single-season yards-per-carry record one-up’s Ruffer’s improbable field goal streak that ran for all of last year’s regular season.

Joseph collected a few quotes from Gray as he looked back on the terrible start to his season, and it really show you a lot about the senior’s character:

“I was shocked that it happened,” Gray said. “I kept trying to remember in my head what happened. It happened kind of fast, and I was thinking, ‘Did the ref blow the whistle? Was I down by contact?'”

The fumble stood, and Gray found himself facing doubt yet again. But when he re-entered the game later, his own troubles were not foremost on his mind.

“I was a little worried, especially when I got back in and people started booing,” Gray said. “I was worried about my mom in the stands and how she was doing. I know she was probably going crazy.”

That Gray worried about his mom is admirable, and also understandable. That he still worries that his mistake doomed his friend Dayne Crist‘s chance as the Irish quarterback, that shows you even more.

Yet despite rebounding and hitting his midseason stride, Gray said not a day goes by when he does not think about that South Florida contest — but not because of the fumble.

“In a lot of ways — I know people are going to say it’s not true — I feel like [senior quarterback Dayne Crist] getting benched had a lot do with me,” Gray said. “With him being one of my best friends, it was tough. It still is tough. That’s why I think about that game every day. You think about how fast it can be taken away from you.”

Turning back the clock to March, I picked Gray as one of 12 key players that needed to step up for the Irish. Jonas was an easy selection, as people tend to forget that Gray was looked at as a top-five running back nationally by Rivals.

Here’s my 100 word preview on Gray from way back then:

This is it for Jonas Gray, with only 2011 left to fulfill the high expectations of a career so far short on results. Gray finally has the opportunity to seize a prominent role in the Irish offense, and could be the thunder to play opposite of Cierre Wood’s lightning. If the home stretch of last season showed us anything, Brian Kelly and the Irish know they can win football games running the ball behind their veteran offensive line and Gray should be given every chance to play a big part. If not, he can always take solace in dominating Screech.

That goes to show you how far Jonas has come. His previous career highlight was doing stand-up comedy with Screech from Saved By the Bell.

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I didn’t mention it earlier in the week, but Notre Dame suffered a recruiting loss when South Bend’s David Perkins backed away from his commitment to the Irish and decided to look at other schools. Perkins made a splash nationally when he put up really impressive numbers during testing at The Opening, Nike’s foray into industrializing the recruiting game and had long been committed to Notre Dame.

At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Perkins doesn’t fit the mold of outside linebackers that the Irish usually look for in their 3-4 defensive system. But Perkins ran a legitimate 4.59 electronic 40-yard dash, one of the best times of any player at any position and you could understand Kelly bringing in a local athlete like that and figuring out what to do with him later.

Still, with the recruiting class filling up and numbers tight, Perkins’ decommitment isn’t a terrible blow to the class, and the decision might have been mutual if you’re to believe some of the reports. While Perkins says he’ll still consider the Irish, it sounds like the break-up is permanent. We’ll find out in the future just how badly this hurts the Irish, with Perkins looking at premiere programs like LSU and Oregon.

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In other recruiting news, the Seattle Post Intelligencer (easily the coolest named newspaper in the country), had two really interesting posts on the recruiting visits of Seattle-based recruits KeiVarae Russell and Zach Banner, two national targets that came to Notre Dame for the USC weekend.

While Irish fans have fretted about the lack of commitments that came out of the Irish’s gigantic recruiting weekend, one journalist’s objective take should have Irish fans feeling better about the impression Notre Dame made on perspective student-athletes.

The high school recruits weren’t there to enjoy the festive tailgating atmosphere directly, however. They were kept busy meeting various school and team representatives who answered questions about the curriculum and playing time and anything else that was on their minds. In between, they were treated to a barbecue and given plenty of time to wander around the Guglielmino Athletics Complex (The Gug) that contained Heisman Trophy information, team trophies and Notre Dame legends of yesteryear as well as statues of famous Notre Dame players and coaches like the Four Horsemen and Knute Rockne.

A while before game time the players, dressed in suits and ties, filed into “The Gug” from buses for a pre-game meeting which was also attended by the recruits. Meanwhile, the throngs of tailgaters and others who were there to watch and/or just support the team began lining up along the ¾ mile route that the players would walk to the stadium, still in their suits and ties. Then, after their meeting, the players, coaches and the recruits and those who had accompanied them there walked the corridor that by then was thronged with thousands upon thousands of supporters, all shouting encouragement. It was an amazing sight. As I walked along with the recruits at the back of the pack, the fans called out to them. Many knew their names and pleaded with them to sign to play with Notre Dame. High-fives and fist bumps prevailed even for the unknowns, like myself, who were walking along with them. For kids, many who were far from home, it was quite a powerful experience. Here were thousands of strangers who obviously knew who they were and were strongly imploring them to come and play at Notre Dame. I was ready to sign on the dotted line. Fortunately, no one offered me a dotted line to sign on.

Worries some had about the changes to the Irish’s walk to the stadium seem to be for naught. While it’s undoubtedly different, the walk past the library and into the stadium gates has quickly turned into a really cool experience.

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Lastly, Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune caught up with former Irish athletes Ian Williams, Sam Young, and Bob Morton, who spoke of the challenges of bringing the Irish back to national prominence. All three had really interesting things to say about a program that they still hold close to their hearts.

From Williams:

“Everybody who comes to play at Notre Dame these days wants to be on that team, wants to be in that recruiting class that does that,” Williams said. “What fans don’t understand is how much work goes into it, how hard it is to do.

“People just think recruits will line up to come to Notre Dame just because it’s Notre Dame. Not without the coaches working for it. People don’t understand how hard it is to sell a program with high academics, and that’s so far north. As an alum, I can really see it all.”

From Young, who Hansen reports helped put a PowerPoint presentation together to help Charlie Weis get training table.

“No matter what team you’re on,” Young said, “whether you’re in last place or in first place, you always want to better your school, leave the university better than how you found it. And part of me feels like I didn’t completely uphold my end of the bargain, just because I wasn’t able to do enough to really bring the university back where I believe it should be.

“Now the thing I can say in just being around coach Kelly and talking to guys on the team is just the culture. It’s a winning culture that, I think, he’s put in. They’re heading in the right direction. It may not be as fast as everyone wants, but they’re making steps.”

Another reminder for Irish fans that while the college game has evolved and gotten harder for a program like Notre Dame to dominate, the guys on the field haven’t stopped trying.