Unfortunately, that hasn't happened. While some backs have shown glimpses of great potential, none have shined on a consistent basis, but it certainly hasn't been all their fault. There simply has been very little running room all season.
Despite a season that will likely set new records for lowest rushing yardage and touchdowns per season, there still is a lot of talent in Notre Dame's backfield. They do need to be more consistent, but they also need to find some daylight to show what they can do.
The Now: We're going to assume that Junior Jabbie won't be back for a fifth year next year due to the fact that Notre Dame already has one running back commitment from the 2008 recruiting season, and they're also recruiting another player for the same class. My guess is Jabbie won't be back, but I really don't know what his status will be.
Assuming that, the Irish do have some very good backs returning for 2008. James Aldridge has shown he's a dependable back who will get you the tough yards almost every time. He's really showed a toughness and determination when running—a guy you can depend on. He's shown glimpses of speed to run away from people, and he's displayed some nice vision in traffic. He hasn't always shown both, however.
Aldridge doesn't look quite as fast as he once was, before his knee surgery, but you can tell he's getting close to being his old self. You can see him becoming more and more confident the more carries he gets. James isn't the type of back who will shine with 10 carries a game. He needs 20 carries to really do some damage. If he gets 20 carries, he'll get you 100+ yards with even an average offensive line. Unfortunately, Notre Dame's is currently below average.
I think with Aldridge, he just needs to get more carries. Once he does, he'll become even more productive. He also needs to work on his blocking in pass protection, and we haven't seen much of him in the passing game. If he improves in these two areas, we'll probably see more of James on the field in the future.
Irish fans have witnessed enough of Armando Allen to know he has vast potential, but thus far he hasn't quite gotten to the point of being productive. He's had 73 carries thus far this season, but his longest run is 15 yards. Freshman Robert Hughes has a longer run of 17 yards. Unfortunately for Allen, the running lanes have been few, and he's also struggled at times recognizing them.
Allen hasn't spent a lot of time running out of the I formation with a fullback previously. Sometimes that takes patience, and the ability to see multiple blockers in front of you knowing where the crease will likely develop. He has done a much better job of recognizing running lanes lately, and he's running with much more authority. Head coach Charlie Weis is using Allen often in the passing game, and his blitz pickup has improved over the season.
For Allen, I just think he needs to work on getting stronger and his technique in pass protection. The running part will come naturally as he gets more carries in this offense. He has vast potential, but so far hasn't quite hit the homerun. My prediction is he finally makes a big play on Saturday. More strength and more time spent in this offense is all he'll need to be the playmaker we've all been waiting for.
I've been a big fan of Robert Hughes for quite some time. I just love his quick feet for such a big guy. He's not the fastest guy as a running back, but he has excellent feet, balance, vision, and can run with power. When given a chance, Robert usually does something very productive with the football. Some of his runs this season have been the most exciting to watch. He has a knack for finding space even when there doesn't appear to be much space to run through.
He's also a very hard worker, and that should keep him in the race for carries. He has excellent hands, even though we haven't seen him catch a pass this season. He does need to work on pass protection and blitz pickup, like all freshmen do.
Unfortunately for Robert (and Aldridge), James is a very similar player. Both guys need carries to really shine. Neither will dazzle on 10 carries a game. The battle for playing time next season will likely be between James and Robert. Armando will get his carries because of what he brings (speed), but one of these two players will get a great deal of carries next season. It's a shame one has to lose the battle because both are excellent backs who can do a lot of damage when given 20 carries a game.
At fullback, I'm left scratching my head. Asaph Schwapp is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, but I have to be critical of his play this season because it has been poor, very poor at times. But it hasn't been from lack of effort, so I do think Irish fans need to cut him a little slack.
Schwapp is simply too big. They list him at 261, but he looked at least 270 to begin the season. The extra weight seemed to take all of Asaph's athletic ability and quickness away, which has really hurt the run game (and pass game) when he's in the game to block.
If you remember, at the end of spring practice head coach Charlie Weis challenged Asaph and Weis said he responded very favorably. Unfortunately, I think Schwapp probably took the challenge to heart and went overboard in lifting during the off-season.
Schwapp has never been a great lead blocker, but he's definitely played better than he has this season. He's better than average when he's athletic. I just think he needs to lose some weight and get back some of his athletic ability and quickness.
Schwapp also doesn't drive through his defender when blocking. It appears he greets his defender, gets his hands on him and then loses contain of him often times. Again, I think this is due to the extra weight and lack of quickness. He needs to learn to drive through his defender when being a lead blocker. He also doesn't recognize where the pressure is coming in the passing game well enough when in for pass protection. A fullback should always be able to handle the blitz.
Having said all of that, Schwapp has done a much better job as a lead blocker on the ISO plays Notre Dame has been running the last two weeks. He's looked much more like a true fullback in that role, and he also looks lighter than he was at the start of the season. My guess is if they keep his weight under control, we'll see the Asaph of old next season.
Strangely, despite Schwapp's troubles, we didn't see a lot of Luke Schmidt this season, and I'm not sure why. One would think that Schmidt would at least be given a chance due to lack of production out of the position. We have seen him more recently, but not as often as I thought we would.
Luke is plenty big at 6-3, 248, but people need to remember he's never played fullback prior to enrolling into Notre Dame. He's never had to lead-block before. He's never had to be as physical as you need to be to play the position. That takes time to learn, and some just don't ever get it.
Luke has shown some nice quicks in the pass game when given a chance, and when I've watched him at practice, linebackers have a very hard time staying with him in the passing game. Maybe that's a role he can play in the future.
The Future: Thus far Jonas Gray is the only running back committed for the 2008 recruiting season. The Irish are recruiting Cyrus Gray, but I'm not overly confident he'll end up at Notre Dame. He very well may, but I wouldn't say it's a certainty at this point.
As I've mentioned before, Jonas, as a pure runner, reminds me very much of a faster, quicker, more physical Darius Walker. He has excellent feet, and runs the stretch play very well. He shows nice balance, and a burst to quickly get through any openings. He has nice vision to recognize things as they develop and find the small creases and running lanes.
He probably doesn't have the speed of Armando, or the physical play of Aldridge, but he's a very solid pickup for the Irish.
What we don't know about Jonas is if can he catch and pick up the blitz like Walker could. If he can, he'll definitely factor into the race for carries in 2008.
I've typed a lot of words thus far in this article but one thing sticks out to me. The Irish have a lot of talented backs, but they don't have one who can do it all. As soon as someone can, will Weis go back to his old ways of using primarily one running back?
I really think it's affected all the running backs. Weis used so many backs in different situations that nobody really got comfortable all season. Travis Thomas was the goal line back. Junior Jabbie was two-minute. James was the featured back. Armando the change of pace, and Robert Hughes got some occasional carries.
Weis obviously did this trying to find anyone who could make a play and spark this team, but the end result was nobody made the plays, at least not often enough.
The problem when having this much talented depth is the temptation to use it all. How many times have we watched "X" back in the game and when he made a poor decision we yelled "get Armando in the game" or "get James in the game." I'm sure Weis and coach Haywood had the same feelings we all did. The temptation to play everyone is hard to resist, especially when you're struggling.
As I mentioned previously, James needs 20 plus carries. So does Robert. Even so, I think Armando does as well. You have to keep giving it to Armando because eventually he'll break a big play. But it's hard to use just one guy when they don't all things well—running, pass protection and catching the football.
I think next season you'll see Weis use one primary back (providing one develops and can do all three things). He'll probably use two consistently, but one will probably get the lion's share of the carries. I think you have to do that to get any back to be highly productive. I believe Weis just has to remain patient and choose a back and give him an entire game to show what he can do. If he doesn't produce, use a different back the next game, but I do think you have to remain patient with your starter because as I've said, all need carries to be as productive as they can be.
Like the quarterback position, Notre Dame has plenty of talent at running back. The Irish have 2 five-star quarterbacks, and they also have 1 five-star back in Aldridge, and 3 highly-rated four-star backs in Allen, Hughes and now Jonas Gray. There's plenty of talent in Notre Dame's backfield. They just need to find a way to get more production from the position in 2008.
The Future, Part II
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