Whenever Tim Hinton is asked about Jonas Gray's breakout senior season, the running backs coach explains that he got into coaching for stories like this:
A senior facing his final chance to make his mark. An awful start to said senior season. A head coach publicly challenging that senior on how we will want to be remembered.
And now, of course, redemption.
Gray entered 2011 with just 75 carries for 309 yards and no touchdowns. He had fumbled the ball four times. He then added to that total when, facing a third-and-goal from the 1 on Notre Dame's first drive of the season, he had the ball jarred loose from him in front of the goal line, resulting in a game-changing — and perhaps season-changing — 96-yard touchdown the other way.
The heavily-favored Irish lost their season opener to South Florida, quarterback Dayne Crist lost his job and Brian Kelly publicly issued an edict three days later:
You can be remembered as the guy who coughed up his last chance, or you can be remembered as the guy who overcame that awful start.
Flash forward to today, Nov. 16, 2011, three days before Gray takes the Notre Dame Stadium field for the final time.
Gray has 703 rushing yards on just 103 carries, an average of 7.1 yards per carry. That puts him within striking distance of George Gipp's single-season record of 8.1 yards per carry. He has started the last three games.
In Week 4 at Pitt, Gray broke off a 79-yard touchdown run, the first of his career. He has had a touchdown in every game since, 11 in all, becoming the first Irish running back to score touchdowns in seven straight games since 1998, when Autrey Denson scored in 10 straight games.
This past Saturday against Maryland, Gray scored twice and recorded the first 100-yard game of his career, finishing with 136 yards on the ground. Afterward, he was critical of himself in blocking and consistency, saying he has yet to play a complete game.
"I think it speaks to the mindset that we want our players to have, and that is each and every week your focus is on execution, preparation and execution," Kelly said Tuesday. "He was asked at the time when it came to execution, he didn't execute some of the things he needed to. And that's the way we're getting our guys to think on a day-to-day basis.
"And preparation, doing the right things during the week both on and off the field and then when it's Saturday, it's your job to execute, and there were some things he didn't do well and there were some things he did very, very well. And those are the things that we want our players to be most focused on."
No one has demonstrated that focus better than Gray, who has given new meaning to the phrase "last hurrah," taking advantage of a second chance and putting himself in position for a career at the next level.
No one will appreciate walking through that tunnel one last time Saturday more than the senior from Pontiac, Mich., who has said over and over again he would not change his up-and-down career in South Bend, Ind., for anything.
"It's easy to coach the one who does it naturally," Hinton said Nov. 1. "Everybody can do that one, right? Why do [they] need us? It's getting the other guys to get to the level they need to be. That's what coaching's all about. That's what you try to do."