Preston Hoping Backs Improve

The competition at running back this spring should be exciting. The Irish should have an open battle at both the halfback and fullback position this spring. We spoke with running backs coach Buzz Preston to get his thoughts on both positions as well as his other responsibility—special teams.

Ryan Grant has always been known as one of the hardest workers on the team. Grant will return for his final season at Notre Dame in the fall of 2004. Preston said he's seen Grant rise to a new level already this spring. "I think he's maybe a little more healthy and that's made a difference," said Preston. "And, he's a little more excited because this is his last go around so he's got himself maybe a little more focused. That's the nature of the beast right now."

Freshman Travis Thomas has been the buzz in the bushes lately. Many expect Thomas to push Grant for the starting job. We asked Preston if he felt Thomas would push Grant for the starting position. "I just expect all of them to compete and do the best they can and let the chips lie where they may, because we're going to need all of them. At running back, you can get down to the guy you thought was the third string guy in a hurry so they all have to compete. I'm just looking forward to them all getting better and we must make the improvement this spring that I'm counting on us to do."

The Irish don't have a clear frontrunner at fullback as of yet according to Preston. "It's the same as the halfback position. Everyone's just working hard and we'll see at the spring who will step out and be the starter. You're always going to use more than one guy at both positions because of the wear and tear of the season."

"Now, if someone gets a little hotter like last season with Julius, then you go with that guy a little more," Preston continued. "If it's a good solid performance by both guys then you try to give them an equal amount or share. You also try to make sure you're playing to their strengths."

In 2003 the Irish had many situations where they ended up in third and short or fourth and short situations. We rarely, if ever, saw the Irish give the ball to the fullback in this type of situation. We asked Preston why the fullback isn't used more in these types of situations. "Sometimes it's tough from that spot. You have confidence in the guys in the backend and you're also trying to gain that extra blocker to get that fourth down. Sometimes that's the problem with one-back offenses. Sometimes if you don't have that lead blocker it gets tough. Sometimes with the fullback, if you give the ball to him, you really don't have a lead blocker and he's got to kind of do it on his own."

Pass blocking and blocking in general by the backs was an area where the running backs struggled. We asked Preston if he was focusing more on pass protection and blocking this spring because they struggled last year. "We're focusing on all of it because you have to be good at all of it. We're just focusing on every aspect of it and we're going to get better at all of it—blocking, passing, running."

Special teams was another area the Irish seemed to struggle. The Irish ranked 101st in the country in net punting and also ranked 75th in kick off returns despite having the two of the top return men to ever wear an Irish jersey. We asked Preston if they were focusing more on special teams in the spring. "We're just going to get back to the fundamentals. It's a combination of the guy kicking it and the guys covering it. We're going to get back to the fundamentals of coverage and protection aspect of it, and hopefully with the combination of our guys, we'll get to kicking it and be in good shape."

I didn't get to spend as much time as I wanted with Preston. I didn't get to speak to him until the tail end of an interview session. There were more questions I would've liked to ask with more time. I will talk to him again at the end of spring to ask the questions I wanted to ask and follow up on some others. Top Stories