Running Back Revival

With Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Haywood taking over the play-calling duties for the first time under head coach Charlie Weis, the former Irish cornerback has greater responsibilities in terms of assessing talent and progress this spring. His observations thus far — Notre Dame is just ahead of the curve.

"At this point right now, I believe we're a little bit ahead of where we thought we'd be at this time," Haywood said. "Guys are at this time right now being able to take individual technique from individual periods, which we spend a significant amount of time on, to the group pairs, which we're having (like Irish Eyes and nine-on-seven) and taking that and moving it into team periods and being able to execute. Right things could happen; we may miss a weak-safety blitz one day. The next day we'll come back and see a weak-safety blitz and we'll throw the side adjust, so there's progress being made on a continual basis."

As time winds down on spring ball, the coaches are starting to see the team's strengths, and weak points. A process that helps this is the meticulous method of keeping track of every pass, carry, catch, tackle and just about any other football related action during the practices.

"Well, we keep track of everything," Haywood said. "We keep track of every throw that's made, every catch that's made by a wide receiver, every ball that is deflected, every ball that is dropped, every ball that is intercepted and every ball that is incomplete for whatever reason. We do the same thing on the offensive live. Is it a solid protection? Was there pressure? Where did the pressure come from? That guy gets the grade or if there's a sack, that individual gets a grade. It's the same system for tight ends and wide receivers, so we grade each individual, after every practice."

It is clear that the running back position is one of the deeper and stronger units not only on the offensive side of the ball, but also on the entire squad. Last week Charlie Weis said that he felt comfortable rotating all three of the halfbacks in spring camp, referring to James Aldridge, Robert Hughes, and Armando Allen. Therefore, it shouldn't come as a surprise to see all of these backs share carries this fall.

"Well, one of the things we're doing is that with multiple personnel grouping that we use, we'll have each of the men to have an opportunity to run different plays and different personnel's to see what their best style is, what their best plays are," Haywood said. "To see how their protection is, in three-by-one, two-by-two and see if they're understanding in their development of pass protection. Guys are starting to clear up, some guys are getting better, and some guys are not developing as fast as others, but there will be a clear picture as soon as camp is over."

With the intense competition surrounding the position, Haywood has seen all of the players react and become aware that any small slip up could mean a decrease in carries and playing time.

"No, there's too much competition right now," he said when asked if any of the backs could afford to take a breather in drills.

After Saturday's practice gave the media a chance to view the progress of the players since last fall, the Irish also put an interesting formation out on the field for all to see. In a three-wide pro-set style formation, the two backs behind Jimmy Clausen were James Aldridge and Robert Hughes. Weis described it as a problem of having too many talented backs, and the desire to have the best 11-players on the field according to the situation. Sounds like a problem a coach would want to have for a change.

"Well, we've been doing a little bit of everything," Haywood said. "We put James in the backfield with Robert Hughes, and run a little bit with them. We also put James and Armando, and Robert and Armando so we're trying different packages with each individual to see what they can do and what they can't do. It's obvious that you can tell one guy may be a better blocker than the other. So we're trying to be able to run each way run our same passing game that we may have in regular, which is 21 personnel, tailback, tight end, two wide receivers and a full back. We're just trying to be able to do the same thing with each personnel group."

This current situation with an array of talented backs reminds Haywood of his tenure at LSU, where he developed a group of halfbacks that went on to have success at the next level. Under his eight-year stint with the Tigers, the squad went to six bowl games, winning five of them.

"I was fortunate," he said of his time at LSU. "I had Kevin Faulk, Rondell Mealey, Cecil Collins, Kendall Cleveland so I had four great backs at the time. We did systems where we had two tailbacks playing at the same time. We also had a system that when a back, we used the term when he was getting hot, the back was getting hot, and we'd leave him in the game, and the other guys understood. Until he was tired, we wouldn't send another guy in."

As Haywood and the staff continue to evaluate the running backs, Allen continues to gain some praise from his coaches with regards to his physicality and pass protection despite his smaller frame.

"Armando Allen is one of the toughest young men that you'll ever see on the football field," Haywood said of the Hialeah, Fla. native. "And he can handle his own against any blitzing linebacker."

Not to get the other two backs jealous, Haywood did offer some pleasantries for each as well. With Hughes, for example, Haywood noted that he came on strong at the end of last season as he continued to develop.

"Well, you know, sometimes it takes guys a little longer to develop and understand the system and understand the blocking schemes and understand who the free defenders are," Haywood said of Hughes. "I think that he started to mature and understand the system a little bit better and he's picked up from where he left off. He's done a really good job with his time."

In addition, Haywood acknowledged that Aldridge is showing some promise his third spring around.

"Well, I think guys are getting better because I think they understand blocking schemes," Haywood said of Aldridge. "They understand eight-man fronts and when we're bringing wide receivers in to block the safety and to bring them in to block the Sam linebacker, so they understand the reads and where the cuts are going to happen. When you spend time watching more tape and you understand what is happening, you have quick reaction to be able to hit the hole quicker. Guys trying to make arm tackles, instead of making arm tackles for two or three yards, they're taking them for 10 to 15 yard gains."

Despite Aldridge being injured heading into his freshman year, Haywood sees no remnants of the damage.

"I think whenever an individual gets hurt, it is always a psychological issue when they first get back and it takes them a little while to get over it," Haywood said. "Once you get in there and get hit in the first game, you don't worry about that because you have a job and an opportunity to execute your responsibilities. It just fades into their memory bank."

The running backs won't be successful, however, if there is no chemistry with their offensive lineman. After the unit's progress this spring, Haywood isn't concerned whatsoever.

"There's a lot more trust," he said. "Every day at 3:30 we have the offensive team meeting and we talk about faith, trust, love, and belief in one another. I think guys are getting better and starting to trust the guys on the side of them. When you trust in the individual that is on the side of you, you don't have to try to make plays; plays develop. You just execute your responsibilities." Top Stories