Man Of Many Hats

Travis Thomas had three rushing touchdowns last Saturday against Navy. The fifth-year senior captain and short-yardage specialist could've easily had four. But before the game, offensive coordinator Mike Haywood sought Thomas out and told the 6-foot, 218-pound Washington, Pa., product about head coach Charlie Weis's plan to get Robert Hughes into the end zone.

Weis thought it would be special to let the freshman Hughes score a touchdown in front of his family and the Notre Dame crowd, after being blindsided by the death of his older brother Earl "Tony" Hughes earlier in the week. So Thomas, who'd been handling the goal-line rushing duties for the season, gave way for Hughes to step in on Notre Dame's first scoring drive.

As everyone knows, Hughes punched his first and only carry of the game in for six points, setting off a huge celebration in the end zone and then again on the sideline.

"It's been a very emotional week, not only for the team, but for Robert," Thomas said Wednesday afternoon. "When you come into this program and you become part of this team, you become part of a family. Robert's troubles become our troubles. We rallied around him, and my relationship with him has grown this year so he's become a little brother for me. I think it was very important for him and his psyche to get that and to get things going on the right foot.

"I think it was a great moment for him and everyone on the team was happy for him."

There might not be a player on the Notre Dame roster who will be happier if the Irish (1-8) can snap their five-game losing streak at home this weekend against Air Force (7-3). In the pursuit of Ws, Thomas has always done what has been asked of him since donning an Irish jersey.

So, besides the situation being what it was, it's no surprise that Thomas didn't care about giving away a touchdown to Hughes like that. And if he's been bothered by going from the starting running back in the season opener to the short-yardage specialist this season, Thomas hasn't shown that either.

He never does.

Thomas didn't play as a true freshman, but earned the starting job for the season opener against BYU his sophomore season. But a small case of the fumbles, and the emergence of then freshman Darius Walker left no room for Thomas in the rotation.

Thomas hardly sulked and regrouped for Weis's first season the following year. His down-hill running style was the perfect change of pace to Walker. Thomas ran for 248 yards on 63 carries, including 52 yards and a touchdown against No. 1 USC that season.

Last season, Thomas's services were needed on defense, and though running back has always been his true love, he moved over to linebacker and gave max effort. Thomas ranked 10th on the team with 35 tackles.

A special teams captain last year, Thomas has always been a key cog on those units, and was the recipient of the 2006 Nick Pietrosante Award presended to the Notre Dame player who best exemplifies the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and pride of the late Irish All-America fullback.

With the emergence of James Aldridge and Armando Allen this fall, as usual, Thomas has accepted his role as the short-yardage back, and played with the same amount of high effort.

"Just looking back where I am now, it's just me being a team player, and I want to do everything I can to help this team win," Thomas said. He has 25 carries for 40 yards and four touchdowns this season. "And I've been pretty much the same throughout my whole football career, going back to little league, high school, it seems that way now, and it's a hat that I have to wear. And if it changes frequently then let it be that.

"But I've always been a team player and continue to do so."

***With the exception of a half against Michigan State this season, the Irish were able to get the running game going for the first time last Saturday in the 46-44 loss to Navy. Notre Dame came into the game as the worst rushing offense in the nation, and the worst in school history, but gained 235 yards against the Middies. The previous season-high was 117 yards against the Spartans.

Aldridge ran for more than that, gaining 125 yards, and Allen chipped in 91 yards, against the Middies, who came into the game ranking 82nd nationally against the run. It was the first time the Irish offense faced a rush defense ranked outside the national top-50 at that point, and five of those opponents have been ranked in the nation's top-10 at one time. Those numbers were career highs for Aldridge and Allen, as was Thomas's three short touchdown runs.

"I think we just went out and we played the most physical we had the entire year," fifth-year senior center John Sullivan said. "We were able to execute better than we have, and I'm not sure why, but we were able to be productive and that was great."

"What I saw, we were physical across the board," Thomas said. "Everyone was doing their job in their place at the right time and just really getting after people and getting off to the right start and able to sustain the running game more than we have in the past, and that's something that we still have to do. That's the way we practice and I think, you know, a lot of the results showed on Saturday."

The Irish have a chance to be effective again this weekend against Air Force. The Falcons come in with the nation's 51st-ranked rush defense, allowing 141.8 yards per game.

***The senior captains were asked how they keep moving forward and keep trying to help the team get in a position to win despite the tough outcomes on a week-to-week basis.

"I just go forward because of the pride that I have and the duty that I have to perform well to this University and to this team, and the fight that we all have inside of us," Thomas explained.

"You know, just looking forward to a new opportunity to go out there and win a game. You know, it's been a while since we've done that, and we're looking forward to the game this week.

"One of Coach Weis's philosophies says in order to succeed in the past three years, win or lose, our attitude has been to take it a week at a time," tight end John Carlson said. "Every season for the past three seasons that I've been a part of, we've taken every game with the same goal as a single week game entity. So putting the previous game behind us has not been a problem because we've been doing this for three years now."

"Just go out and work hard," Sullivan stated. "That's what we always do, win or lose. And you know, no matter the outcome of the week's -- the other previous week's game, there's always work to be done, and as long as there's a game next week, we are prepared to work hard for it."


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