The Numbers Game

Notre Dame running backs coach Tim Hinton now has five pupils to tutor this spring. Who cares if three of them are walk-ons?

It was a knee injury that looked severe to nearly one thousand onlookers at Saturday morning's practice, and an MRI has since confirmed initial fears: sophomore running back Cameron Roberson will be lost for the spring – and likely much longer – with a torn lateral collateral ligament and partially torn anterior cruciate.

With Roberson's return date uncertain, running backs coach Tim Hinton will make due with two scholarship ‘backs for the remainder of the spring. Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray will be spelled by a trio of walk-ons including Patrick Coughlin, who starred in the latter stages of the 2010 Blue Gold Game and has been the fold since.

Recent additions include the spring semester return of 2010 walk-on Derry Herlihy (set to graduate in May) and Monday's campus tryouts winner and newly minted walk-on, Tyler Plantz.

Despite the dearth of talent, Hinton was his usual upbeat self following today's practice.

"You know it went well, I gained one (runner); we're plus-one today!" he exclaimed. "(Plantz) is going to go out there and help us in whatever we need him to do. Obviously he's way behind the learning curve, but he's a good young kid and had a good time today. A little nervous, obviously, a little shell-shocked…but he did well."

Plantz's father, Ron, was an offensive guard for Gerry Faust's Irish from 1982-85.

"Our kids accepted (their new teammate) well and put it him in a role. We don't have many bodies out there at running back, so he got indoctrination. He has to be alive (ready) to do anything at any point in practice."

So too does the veteran teacher of collegiate runners.

"We have five now," Hinton noted of his unit's practice bodies. "We have Derry Herlihy who has come back to help us out, and obviously (Plantz). It's an interesting room. I'm coaching my rear end off; it's a lot of fun. Three of the five obviously don't know a lot so we're working the heck out of those guys to just be able to finish practice."

Hinton, who'd coach with the same passion and exuberance if he were dealing with any collection of talent from Pop Warner through the Packers, recognizes the importance of schooling and cajoling his trio of walk-ons this April.

"Here's what coaching those guys in the spring does: it makes them better Scout Team members in the fall," Hinton noted. "And the better our Scout team is, the better our defense is, so that's the other part about really coaching them. If you coach them now, they'll be better in the fall for us against our No. 1 defense; the more competition there the better. That's the idea."

The Varsity

With 10 practices remaining including the April 16 Blue Gold Game, Hinton knows his long-term goals can't change, though his approach to the final two weeks of spring ball must.

There are two things that have to happen," Hinton said specifically of starter Cierre Wood and challenger Jonas Gray. "No. 1 is we have to be fall-ready. There's no question about it. They have to be in position where they get enough reps and enough live reps where they have the opportunity to see the multiple things that have to be done in the fall, so when we get to that time we're not still making mistakes.

"Our second objective is to get them to the fall in good health and in a good mental state so they're ready to go through those 28-29 practices before game week. They have to be in position to excel on game day next year.

"That's the whole objective. It's the hard thing about spring with players – its 15 practices now, but it's really preparing for that first game of the year – South Florida. That's what we're doing. That's my objective to get them to that point."

That journey can't include a physical beating in April.

"Listen, I could run them into the ground, but that would not be very good at the end of the spring, and that's not the direction I want to go. I want to build through spring."

Key to that building process for both Wood and Gray is accountability, a trait neither embraced at this time last season but have both displayed since.

"They've gotten better, there's no question," Hinton said of his talented tandem. "And obviously they understand their roles and they look around and say ‘I better step up. There's no Armando, no Robert, it's now me.'

"They've accepted it, they're learning, they're studying more, their knowledge on the field is better…they're competing at a higher level, their pass protection is better. So that's been really good. But we're not good enough yet and we have to continue to improve with those guys."

Gray in particular has room to improve in one crucial – scratch that, essential – aspect of his game.

Running with power.

"It's been an interesting transformation because it took Robert (Hughes) a little while to figure out he was 240 pounds," said Hinton of last November's power back and late-season offensive spark. "And I don't mean that as an insult, I love Robert Hughes, but that was our goal: to teach Robert he was 240 pounds; ‘Now run 240 pounds.'

"It took him awhile to get to that point. And that's on coaching. I wish I could have gotten him there quicker but I didn't. But he learned it, and I thought he did a great job with it."

At 225, Gray is the obvious choice to replace Hughes in the team's power sets.

"That's a big back. Now you have to run like a big back," Hinton said of his senior who possesses much more speed than did Hughes but is nonetheless better suited running north-south than trying to find his niche as a nifty, perimeter player. "I said it to him before practice today: ‘Don't run 180, run 225. Go be a 225-pound back today. Let's run with power."

Gray's ability to perform in bruiser's role is mandatory if the Irish are to return to a part-time power attack as they did during a four-game winning streak to end 2010.

"If you can get a big back/little back combination going; that really wears on a defense," Hinton offered. "The 225-pounder has to run 225. He has to wear you down."

As Hughes and the 4-0, late-season Irish proved in November, the element of power will always have its place in the college game.

Running with power: 2010

Irish fans can expect a much more crisp, consistent effort from head coach Brian Kelly's passing attack in Year Two of his tutelage, but the need for a power running game – and the balance it provides for the offense – cannot be overstated.

Run vs. Pass in Five 2010 Defeats:

  • Michigan: 32 rushes, 154 yards vs. 44 pass attempts (3 INT)
  • Michigan State: 26 rushes, 92 yards vs. 55 pass attempts (1 INT)
  • Stanford: 23 rushes, 44 yards vs. 45 pass attempts (1 INT)
  • Navy: 30 rushes, 106 yards vs. 38 pass attempts (2 INT)
  • Tulsa: 24 rushes, 124 yards vs. 56 pass attempts (3 INT)

Run vs. Pass in Eight 2010 Victories:

  • Purdue: 36 rushes, 153 yards vs. 26 passes (0 INT)
  • *Boston College: 31 rushes, 112 yards vs. 45 passes (1 INT)
  • Pittsburgh: 31 rushes, 87 yards vs. 39 passes (0 INT)
  • Western Michigan: 34 rushes, 149 yards vs. 30 passes (1 INT)
  • Utah: 29 rushes, 127 yards vs. 20 passes (0 INT)
  • Army: 38 rushes, 155 yards vs. 20 passes (1 INT)
  • USC: 32 rushes, 147 yards vs. 34 passes (3 INT)
  • Miami: 48 rushes, 196 yards vs. 29 passes (0 INT)

*BC boasted the nation's No. 1 rush defense in 2010.


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