Starting halfback Darius Walker had a solid sophomore season rushing for almost 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns on the season. His 4.73 yards per rush average in 2005 is a respectable number. Combine that with his 43 receptions and you have a pretty versatile running back.
Walker also greatly improved his pass blocking in 2005 and just seemed more confident in his role as the featured back.
The junior wouldn't be considered an elite running back by most, but Walker does everything well--running, receiving and blocking—which makes him a very valuable player in the Weis offense.
Where can Walker improve in 2006? As we've said, he does everything well and I can only see a couple of "weaknesses" in his game.
First and foremost, Walker has to stay healthy for an entire season—something he has yet to do in his first two seasons at Notre Dame. The Irish will definitely need a fresh and healthy Darius Walker when traveling to Los Angeles to take on the Trojans late in the season.
When he's healthy, Walker is bordering on a great back as many saw in the Stanford game and the Ohio State game last season. Against the Cardinal, Walker had his best game of the season rushing for 186 yards and the game-winning touchdown, and the 5-foot-10, 210-pounder rushed for an impressive 5.63 yards per carry against a very stout Buckeye defense.
The Lawrenceville, Ga. native also seems to be very working very hard on his quickness and overall speed and looked much quicker in the spring—that would be a big bonus. My last little nit to pick would be to run more physical this year. Weis uses Walker mostly on the stretch play, and that's not an ideal situation for power running, but there are times where I think Walker could lower his shoulder more to pick up extra yardage. But with Walker's recent bad luck with injuries, maybe it isn't such a bad idea to have him run out of bounds more often than not. Still, he'll need to show he's a more physical runner to impress potential NFL employers in the future.
The only story so far during summer break this summer has been the rumored move of backup halfback Travis Thomas to linebacker. If this happens, is it a good idea?
Why not? What will it hurt to have Thomas take some snaps at linebacker? If the Irish coaching staff thinks he can help—get the best players on the field—I think you have to take that chance.
And it's not really a chance. Thomas won't be a less effective runner if the linebacker experiment doesn't work out. He already knows the plays backwards and forwards. He's accomplished in blocking, running and receiving. There is little risk and the chance for big rewards.
I think the real question that needs to be asked is why is Thomas moving? What does that say about the linebacker position? Now that's a valid question.
No matter where Thomas lines up, he'll give the Irish everything he's got, but I must admit I'm somewhat disappointed as I felt Travis was on the verge of earning more carries. Yet, Weis has made no bones about his theories on football—one being that he uses mainly one featured back—Walker.
So who wins the No. 2 spot?
Your guess is as good as mine on this. Many predicted freshman James Aldridge would be the guy. With a sturdy 6-foot, 210-pound frame, many expected Aldridge to step right into an important role in 2006, but a knee injury might be holding him back.
Some Irish fans got caught up the five stars surrounding Aldridge's name and forgot about St. Louis prospect Munir Prince. Prince is certainly a different back, but as we've heard all along, is a very hard worker. Prince added some strength during the off-season and is rumored to be nearing 190 pounds on his 5-foot-10 frame. Early returns have been very favorable in regards to Prince. I hear "very fast, nobody can cover him." If true, expect Weis to find a way to use Prince's speed somewhere in 2006.
Another freshman, Luke Schmidt, could also get a look-see at halfback. Schmidt would certainly feel comfortable in the position as he amassed almost 5,000 yards his final two seasons in high school from the halfback position. But many consider Schmidt the fullback of the future and he might not see much time at halfback. I wouldn't be surprised to see him in the halfback role this season, however, as I've heard he's "quicker than anticipated." Keep an eye on Schmidt this fall.
Finally Asaph Schwapp and Ashley McConnell will man the fullback position. Schwapp is a workhorse blocking back and the starter. He isn't a flashy runner. He isn't a great blocker yet, but I expect him to be. If there is one area that I saw the most improvement from the previous staff, it would be the blocking of the running backs. I expect Schwapp to greatly improve in 2006 in regards to blocking. The Irish will need him to be a better lead blocker to help in their power running game this season.
With the rumored departure of Travis Thomas, the Irish appear very thin at running back, relying on true freshmen as depth. While that's not an ideal situation, I do believe they have some talent at the position. A healthy Aldridge would certainly help the situation.
Who Will Be No. 2, Part II
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