As the Notre Dame Fighting Irish enter the home stretch, Jonas Gray is challenging Cierre Wood for the lead role in Brian Kelly’s backfield.
Notre Dame's win over Navy marked the first game in which Jonas Gray received more carries than Cierre Wood. The Irish won 56-14.
It’d be silly to assume a causal relationship between a Notre Dame win and Gray receiving one more carry than Wood, but that doesn’t mean that the Gray-over-Wood argument doesn’t have merit.
Let’s delve into some more meaningful stats and take a look at which back fares better in a number of situations.
Unsurprisingly, Cierre Wood is the clear winner in this category. Through eight games, Wood has 22 receptions. Jonas Gray has three.
Wood’s shiftiness and vision make him excellent in the screen game, and he shows good spatial awareness to find openings out of the backfield. His 22 catches tie him for 17th among all FBS running backs.
Wood is an integral component of the passing game even when he isn't the target.
Though he is the smaller of the two backs, Wood is outstanding as a pass blocker. He does a great job of identifying blitzers and aggressively taking on his blocks.
Gray has the size and strength to be a good blocker, but lacks Wood’s awareness in the pass game.
EDGE: Cierre Wood
Stature aside, Cierre Wood has been the workhorse for Notre Dame. Between the 20s, Wood has received 89 carries, to just 39 for Jonas Gray.
On those carries, Wood has racked up 581 yards—good for 6.5 yards per carry.
With less than half the workload, Gray has tallied 409 yards and a per-carry average of 10.5.
Gray has been by far the more explosive runner. Nearly half of his carries (17) have gone for 10 or more yards. Even after taking out Gray’s 79-yard scamper against Pittsburgh, the senior still averages 8.7 yards per carry.
Gray’s lighter workload does present some sample-size issues in this area, but he’s been so consistent in his ability to chew up large chunks of yardage that I can confidently say that he’s the better back in these situations.
EDGE: Jonas Gray
This is where Jonas Gray’s size and strength advantage starts to take over. He is an absolute wrecking ball in short yardage.
While Cierre Wood has an uncanny ability to slither through tiny creases in the defense, he lacks the brute strength and bullish disposition to power through a defense stacked against him.
Oddly enough, Wood has actually received the majority of the carries in short yardage situations, especially on third down. Yet, Gray has unsurprisingly performed much better with his share of the load.
When Notre Dame has faced a 3rd-and-6 or less, Gray has converted 67 percent of first downs. Wood has converted just 54 percent of his chances in those situations.
EDGE: Jonas Gray
In the red zone, a touchdown can be the only acceptable outcome. Knowing that, touchdowns are the only statistic that matters in this situation.
On 26 touches in the red zone, Cierre Wood has six touchdowns.
On just 14 carries in the red zone, Jonas Gray has six touchdowns.
Generally, I don’t believe in running backs that have “a nose for the end zone.” I’ve found that it’s mostly a way for broadcasters to turn dumb luck into a workable narrative.
In all, Gray has eight touchdowns on just 63 carries. Only one running back in FBS (Georgia Tech’s Orwin Smith) has more TDs on fewer touches.
Jonas Gray is starting to change my mind.
EDGE: Jonas Gray
As disappointing as this season has been, the Irish have done an excellent job of closing out opponents.
Notre Dame has lost just one game (Michigan) in which it held a lead in the second half.
Both Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray have contributed to salting away those victories, but Gray has been the better situational runner.
Wood averages 6.0 yards per carry in the first half, but just 5.0 in the second half; Gray’s average jumps from 7.8 in the first half to 8.5 in the second half.
Again, Wood has the larger sample size, but Gray has been consistently excellent in the opportunities that he’s been given.
EDGE: Jonas Gray
Jonas Gray should be the lead running back for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Gray is more explosive than he’s given credit for, and performs consistently better than Cierre Wood in all running situations.
Wood should still be a huge part of the offense, but Brian Kelly should deploy him in a similar fashion to the way the New Orleans Saints use Darren Sproles.
Wood should receive about 15 touches per game, with an emphasis on getting him the ball in open space. Beyond that, Gray should be the focal point of the Notre Dame running game.
Jonas Gray’s remarkable metamorphosis has taken place because Gray has accepted who he is, as well as who he isn’t.
He seems to finally realize how much bigger and stronger he is than most of his opponents. When he breaks through the initial line of defense, Gray powers through smaller tacklers at full speed, rather than breaking down and trying to elude them.
This allows Gray to break through tackles while maintaining a full head of steam, making it difficult for slower linebackers to chase him down from behind.
A run that used to be a four yard dance routine becomes a 15 yard steamrolling.
This change in approach has helped Gray grow from a player who could never seem to live up to his potential to a player who is already outgrowing his role.