While Darius Walker wasn't the home run running back that Irish fans had hoped for, he was a very consistent player for Irish head coach Charlie Weis, and it's that consistency that will be hard to replace now that the junior running back has moved on to greener pastures.
Walker is a patient runner with good feet and vision. He can find the smallest of creases and zip right through. He was an outstanding receiver out of the backfield for Weis in his offense, and he was a very solid pass blocker when left in for pass protection. It's rare you can find a running back who can do all three well, and that's why Walker was so valuable in this offense. Replacing Walker's 56 receptions from last year won't be easy.
Now that Lawrenceville, Ga. native is gone; many anticipate the return of fifth-year senior Travis Thomas from the defensive side of the ball. Thomas, as many know, switched from running back to linebacker this past season, and most expect him to return to his more natural position at running back for his final season.
Thomas brings a nice burst of speed and an extra gear that Walker lacked. He also hits the hole quickly, something Walker had been criticized for not doing in the past. Thomas also appears to be much more physical in his running style, which I think has been lacking recently at the position.
The fifth-year senior probably doesn't have the lateral movement that Walker possesses, and he also doesn't appear to have the same type of vision or hands that Walker was known for. In fact, Thomas has only five receptions in his entire career at Notre Dame. But Thomas will bring some suddenness, some power and some physical play to the position. If anything, he probably needs to work on his hands and becoming more of a playmaker out of the backfield.
Many expect freshman James Aldridge to grab the position. Aldridge came to Notre Dame as a Scout.com five-star running back last January, but knee injuries have slowed his development, and Aldridge only managed 37 carries for 142 yards and 3.8 yards per carry this past season.
Aldridge runs a lot like Thomas and is comparable in size. When healthy, he probably has more lateral movement than Thomas, and he's got a nice burst and runs with authority. Aldridge seemed to be finding his confidence at the end of the season. Irish fans have to hope that he can continue on that path this spring.
We haven't seen much of Aldridge as a pass blocker, and he has yet to catch his first pass for the Irish. Some question whether he'll ever get back to 100 percent, but I've heard recently that he should be there this spring. With knee injuries, the problem usually becomes trusting the injured knee to be able to perform like it used to. Aldridge should get back to that level soon. But can he catch and pass block? Whether he can or can't will likely be the deciding factor as to how much we see him on the field in 2007.
Munir Prince is another freshman back we saw in the backfield numerous times over the 2006 season. Prince's game is speed, and he has a lot of it, but we haven't seen that translate to productivity yet. In fact, Prince carried the ball 15 times last year and amassed just 21 yards (1.4 yards per carry).
But with a guy like Prince, you need to keep giving it to him if you're going to play him because while he'll get you the two-yard carry, he'll also get you the 60-yard home run.
At 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, the Florrisant, Mo. native doesn't have the size to be a physical back, and his small stature also probably hurts him in pass protection, so he must spend considerable time in the weight room this off-season to be able to play every down.
Where Prince could really become valuable is in the passing game and replacing some of Walker's receptions, but we've heard he struggles at times catching the football, and that will be very important to his future at running back for the Irish. If the sophomore-to-be can work on his size, strength and hands, he could go a long way in helping replace Walker.
If Prince struggles catching the football, early enrollee Armando Allen can fill that void. At 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, Allen has similar size and speed. The Hialeah, Fla. native recently enrolled in Notre Dame and is expected to participate in spring practices, and that's good news for Irish fans.
Watching Allen on tape, the freshman back reminds me a lot of Julius Jones out of high school. Allen has excellent feet and is a pretty physical runner despite his size. He's got that "wow" factor that the great backs have, and more importantly, he's got 4.38 speed.
Unfortunately, like James Aldridge before, Allen enrolled at Notre Dame injured. This time it's an ankle, and Allen said he should be 100 percent by the time spring practice rolls around. It's important for Allen to get some quality reps this spring if he wants to contribute this fall. Learning the offense, working on pass protection and receiving this spring should give him a leg up once fall camp rolls around.
A fifth player could factor into the equation in combo back Luke Schmidt. Schmidt would certainly bring some down hill running to the Irish backfield if given the chance. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Schmidt is certainly a load, and I'm going to guess he's north of 230 pounds at present time.
The Jasper, Ind. freshman was recruited to play both halfback and fullback for the Irish, but most suspect his future is at fullback. However, he did rush for over 6,000 yards in his high school career, and he is light on his feet for a big back. He also showed some nice hands out of the backfield on his highlight film for a high school running back.
I expect to see Schmidt at least to be given a look at the halfback spot this spring. If he's not a factor at halfback, we expect to see him in some games at fullback as the backup to Asaph Schwapp next season.
Spring should be an exciting time for Irish fans and for watching the competition at halfback. Charlie Weis likes to use one player as his main back because he doesn't like to tip his hand on offense. He doesn't like to have a guy whose only job is to catch the football or only runs and never stays in to pass block. By having such a player, you're tipping off the defense as to which type of play likely is coming—run or pass.
Considering the Irish will replace three starters along the offensive line for next season, running lanes might be few and hard to find. I'm guessing the guy who can run physical, yet still find the creases, can pass block, catch, and most importantly, hold onto the football will win the job. I can't name that guy right now, but I'm going to guess one of the bigger backs has the best shot to start, as long as he can catch and hold into the football.