Rod Beard and Josh Katzenstein preview the Lions' game against the Patriots.
Allen Park — In the NFL, things can change pretty quickly. A single injury can push a player from the practice squad to the 53-man roster and from a reserve role to a starting spot.
Every year, the Patriots seemingly find an unheralded player and the coaching staff finds a way to turn him into a key contributor. This season, after running back Stevan Ridley was lost for the season, coach Bill Belichick reached to the practice squad and promoted running back Jonas Gray to the roster.
Last Sunday, a little over a month later, Gray was on "Sunday Night Football," setting a team record in the lopsided win over the Colts. With 199 rushing yards and four touchdowns, Gray became the first NFL player to score his first four career rushing touchdowns in one game since 1921. He tied an NFL record with 15 rushing first downs.
Now, Gray will face one of his toughest tests, against the Lions' top-ranked defense, on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
It's an unlikely road to the top for a former Detroit Country Day standout.
"I had a pretty good senior year at Notre Dame and tore my ACL in my final game on Senior Day and rehabbed for the entire year with the Miami Dolphins," Gray said on patriots.com. "I was cut after camp and went to Baltimore (last year) for the entire year and I'm here."
He signed with the Patriots practice squad in January and had to work his way up the depth chart after going through the wringer of being the hitting target for the first-team defense.
"I was working on my craft, getting better every day, going against the starters, pretty much being a full-contact guy every day, so that helped me," Gray said. "The leadership, the guys that have been here for a long time, they have a way of doing things — they're consistent, so I just followed their lead and they were able to rely on me."
Following the veterans is a sound strategy for a young guy just trying to make his way, with Tom Brady taking most of the headlines and Rob Gronkowski not far behind.
But when Ridley went out because of the injury, Belichick knew that he could count on Gray to fill the void.
"He's a hard-working kid, a strong back and has good power and good vision," Belichick said Wednesday on a teleconference. "He's had an opportunity to play and he's gone in, played hard and tried to take advantage of that opportunity. You can't really ask more than that."
At 5-foot-10, 230 pounds, Gray was a battering ram on the practice squad. His effort attracted some notice, as many of the veterans paid attention to his work ethic and running style.
"I don't think it was him bursting on the scene. We watched him run the ball all preseason and we've been watching him all year in practice. He's run hard, guys have been on him," safety Devin McCourty said. "He's a running back for the defense so guys are hitting him and trying to strip the ball and he's still running the same way and it was good for him to get out there and have a game like that, so the rest of the world could see the work he's been putting in and how determined he's been.
"He's been a joy to have in the locker room and I'm happy he was able to have that success."
In the three previous games, Gray had a smaller role, totaling 131 yards on 32 carries. But he got an indication before last week's Colts game that he'd play a bit more.
"On Saturday, I remember walking into the building and (Patriots owner Robert) Kraft pulled me aside and said, 'You're going to have a big game this week — so be ready.' " Gray recalled. "Hearing that from the owner, hearing that from the head coach and the leaders of the team gives you a positive outlook and the mind-set to go out and do your best."
It's just another case of the Patriots and Belichick finding a diamond in the rough with a key player, just as they did with countless others over the years. But with his breakout game last week, Gray won't be a surprise on the scouting report this week for the Lions, who have one of the top run defenses in the league.
"It's a guy that no one has really ever heard of before and all of a sudden, he busts out with 1,000 yards in one game — that's the way they operate," Lions defensive tackle C.J. Mosley said. "He really just took his opportunity and made the most of it. When his number was called, he made a lot happen with the ball."
Country Day coach Dan MacLean wasn't able to watch Sunday's game because he was preparing for his team's semifinal game on Saturday. But he heard about Gray's big game from plenty of texts while he was meeting with the coaching staff.
Gray led the Yellowjackets to a state title in 2007 as a senior, with more than 2,600 yards and 32 touchdowns, but wasn't able to continue that pace at Notre Dame.
MacLean said the only game he was able to attend was Gray's final game as a senior, against Boston College, when he suffered the ACL injury. That made Sunday's success that much sweeter for him.
"I know from afar all the things he's gone through to get to this position and it's very rewarding," MacLean said. "He's really persevered, just growing through some of the adversity he's faced. I'm very proud of him as his coach and I speak for all our coaches and former players that the school is very excited for him."
Gray is only the second Country Day alum to play in the NFL, along with Kenny Demens, who played at Michigan and is with the Cardinals. Demens took the same route, making the practice squad and getting a shot on the regular roster because of injuries to veteran players.
MacLean has communicated with Gray this week and although Gray seemingly has made it big, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, he's maintaining a workmanlike ethic, with a special message to the Country Day players about what it takes to make it as a pro.
"I told the players you can always run the ball but what you need to do to become a successful pro is to blitz-protect and protect the quarterback," MacLean said. "He sent me back a funny text saying, 'You've got the franchise back there, so you'd better do the job or you're going to be gone in a hurry.'
"Jonas is an exceptional athlete, the best our school ever had as a running back but he still didn't have it all together when he got to the NFL. His willingness to do those things and do whatever the team needed him to do, that's how he finally got his opportunity and here he is making the most of it. It's just a great story on our end."