Dynamic Duo

<P>The Irish should be deep at running back this year with a healthy Ryan Grant and a new and improved Julius Jones. Irish Eyes spoke with both players yesterday to get their thoughts on the running back situation, their season and how they've been developing as players. </P>

Julius Jones has had roughly three weeks to get back into playing shape. Jones says he feels great and he's feeling like he's back to where he once was. "It's starting to come back," said Jones. "The first couple of hits kind of reminds you where you are and you kind of have to get adjusted to it quick. It feels good being in there and learning the plays. It's kind of slowing down for me now. Once you learn and learn your assignments the game kind of slows down for you."

Learning the system has been the most difficult thing for Jones but Jones says he feels comfortable with the plays they are running. "I think I've learned everything they've installed. I still have more to learn but the majority of the offense I think I'm pretty confident with."

For Jones to be the special player we all love, he needs to get past the thinking stage for his athletic ability to shine. "I think so," said Jones when asked if his athletic ability is starting to show. "At first I was trying not to mess up. Now I've pretty much learned the offense and I can go out there and play and be natural."

Sitting out a year also made the transition difficult. Jones says he wasn't at his best when he first stepped on the field. "I was definitely rusty. The first couple of days I dropped some passes and I missed some reads. The first couple of days of getting into it--taking some hits—I kind of got adjusted to it."

The Irish have used Jones as a return man his entire career. Jones ranks second on the all-time Notre Dame kick return list with 1,857 yards and is only 233 yards away from breaking Tim Brown's all-time record of 2,089 yards. Jones says he's back in his familiar role and hopes the staff will turn to him to return punts and kicks in 2003. "I've been doing both punt return and kick returns. They kind of switch it up so I don't know what they are going to do as far as starter. I just have to go out there and practice and hopefully I won't drop any balls. Hopefully I will be out there returning both punts and kicks."

Jones also had to learn the passing routes because he will be asked to catch the football—something he hasn't done a lot in the past. Jones only has 18 receptions for his entire career but Jones is excited about catching the ball in the open field. "Running backs might get some screens but lining up at receiver is a little bit different. We go into motion and you have to know receiver routes and checks. There's definitely a lot to learn. If you want to play you have to know it so I've been studying my playbook and hopefully it will pay off. It's been a lot of fun so far and it will only help my game."

Jones says he has no idea where he stands on the depth chart at this point. "He doesn't really talk about that too much," said Jones of running backs coach Buzz Preston. "He gives us compliments but he doesn't say who is going to start or is second team or third team. You really don't know until before the game."

The wait and has been long for Jones but he can't wait for September 6th. "I'm waiting patiently. I'm pretty sure it's going to feel great to be out there--just being out there playing football. It's been a long wait for September 6th but it's finally here."

Jones will have to share carries with Ryan Grant. Grant says he's fully healthy heading into the final weekend of fall camp. Next week, the Irish will prepare for Washington State and Grant should be fully healthy to begin the season. "I've never felt this good. I feel strong, my body feels good and I'm excited and anxious to go," said Grant. "Practice is going well, we're getting stronger, quicker and we're more consistent and that's important as a backfield."

Irish Eyes has never spoken to Ryan Grant when he has been this excited about his game. "I feel good, I really do. I feel like I can move and can do things. I feel like I can be a dominate back this year."

Grant should enter the season healthy and we asked Grant how important that would be to him. "It's hard to be healthy when you play football but I want to be as healthy as I can be when we start the first game so I can go in and perform at the highest level—I'm right on track for that and that should help this team."

The Irish backs struggled with pass protection last year and will be throwing the football to the backs a lot this year. Grant says the offense has worked a lot on both this spring and fall and he has seen marked improvement in both areas. "Those are two things that we worked on a lot. I think we've developed and have gotten a lot better in those areas. I feel really good where we are right now in regards to catching the ball and blitz pickup. We know the protections and we're getting after it. Protection is just attitude and getting after it."

Grant says he isn't concerned who starts the year as the starting running back. He knows that there will be plenty of touches to keep everyone happy. "As of right now, it's not a matter of who starts. We're all concentrating on becoming better. Whichever back goes in we want to perform and win games. All of us should play so it's not a concern who is starting."

The Irish should have a solid nucleus of depth and talent in the backfield this year. Having Grant's power and determination with Jones' speed and cutting ability will give the Irish a deadly one-two punch. Blitz pickup remains a concern for most Irish fans but Grant says they've made marked improvement. If both Jones and Grant can stay healthy the Irish could have a magical season.

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