Team Preview: Halfbacks

The halfback position might be the most highly contested position in fall camp in August. The Irish have three proven halfbacks, and freshman Jonas Gray will be added to the mix. The Irish coaching staff will have a nice mix of power and speed to choose from in 2008.

There will likely be a lot of sleepless night coming soon for junior James Aldridge and sophomores Robert Hughes and Armando Allen. All three halfbacks saw significant playing time last year and showed flashes of their vast potential on the field. Which player will get the most carries in the fall is anyone's guess at this point.

No matter which player starts, the Irish have to do a much better job of running the football next year. As a team the Irish rushed for just 903 yards total last season. 58 sacks accounted for a lot of lost yardage in that total, but ND averaged just 2.1 yards per carry, 75.2 yards per game, and only scored 11 touchdowns on the season on the ground.

Under head coach Charlie Weis the Irish had averaged 125.7 yards rushing (2006) and 147 yards rushing (2005) per game in his first two seasons. The Irish also averaged around 3.9 yards per carry. While those numbers aren't overly outstanding, they are respectable. Notre Dame has to get back to averaging around 150 yards per game to compete with the best teams in the country.

For example, USC averaged 197 yards per game on the ground and almost 5 yards per carry last season. Michigan State averaged 198 yards per game and almost 4.5 yards per carry. 2007 National Champions LSU averaged 214 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. Good football teams can run the football. The Irish need to get back to that if they want to be a good football team.

The Notre Dame coaching staff used a number of running backs last season and none really stood out when given the chance. Each showed glimpses of why they were highly ranked before coming to Notre Dame, but no running back took the bull by the horns and clearly won the job last season. Poor blocking played a large part in their limited success, but I also believe you have to give a halfback enough carries to get into a rhythm to be effective when running the football. Unfortunately, rarely did a running back impress when given the chance to earn the most carries in any particular game last season.

The Candidates

The 6-foot, 220-pound Aldridge led the team last year with 463 rushing yards. Aldridge averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, but also had most of his carries earlier in the year when Notre Dame was really struggling to run the football. The Crown Point, Ind. native is now two years removed from a knee injury, and the time is now if he wants to win the most carries this fall. Aldridge hasn't looked as shifty as he once was on the field in high school, but he will lower his head and give Notre Dame some solid inside running when given the chance. His best game last season was against Michigan State where he rushed for 104 yards. Notre Dame hasn't used Aldridge much in the passing game as of yet. He caught just five passes last season for 30 yards. Aldridge will have to impress early and often in fall camp to hold off the charge of two talented sophomores.

Sophomore Armando Allen brings speed to the Irish backfield, but Irish fans haven't actually witnessed that speed too often on the field. Allen averaged a respectable 4.0 yards per carry last season and finished second on the team with 348 rushing yards. His longest run from scrimmage, however, is just 15 yards. The sophomore halfback showed a nice burst while running, but probably needs to learn to have some patience at the line of scrimmage. Allen isn't afraid to run inside, but hasn't been overly effective when doing so. Notre Dame does use him quite a bit as a receiver (24 receptions in 2007) out of the backfield. The Opa Locka, Fla. native's best attributes are most effective when given some space to use his shiftiness and speed, so we'll likely see him used quite a bit in the passing game again this season. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound speedster hasn't found much daylight to run through yet, but we expect to see him break some longs runs this year with a more effective offensive line to run through.

Chicago, Ill. native Robert Hughes was the most effective runner out of the three last season in limited carries. A 5-foo-11, 240 pounds, Hughes looked very light on his feet for a big guy. He was able to find some daylight and was effective punishing tacklers when he got to the second level of defenders. The sophomore finished third on the team with 294 rushing yards, but he did average 5.5 yards per carry, and is the only returning halfback who scored a touchdown last year on the ground as he had four trips to the end zone. Hughes started to come into his own at the very end of last season when he rushed for 246 yards on 35 carries (7 yards per carry) and two of his touchdowns in the last two games of the season. Hughes also won the MVP of the annual spring game this past April while rushing for 100 yards on 22 carries. The most pressing problem for Hughes might be keeping his weight down as he continues to grow as a halfback.

Freshman running back Jonas Gray will also be added to the mix. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound running back had an outstanding senior season where he rushed for almost 3,000 yards and 33 touchdowns for Country Day high school in Detroit, Mich. Gray brings both size and speed to the equation, and some shiftiness as well. It may be difficult, however, for the freshman to see much playing time with so many talented running backs in front of him.

What to Expect

I believe you'll see quite a battle early on in fall camp. Aldridge was listed as the starter heading into fall, but we don't expect that position to be etched in stone at this point. Hughes continues to show he's a very solid running back and usually makes the most out of his carries. With more daylight Allen should add some big plays to the equation. My guess is one of Hughes or Aldridge will end up being the workhorse when all is said and done. Allen will likely be on the field often because of his speed and ability to catch the football, but the lion's share of carries will likely go to either Aldridge or Hughes.

What's most important, I believe, is to give either Aldridge or Hughes 20 plus carries a game because I think both need that many carries to be truly effective as running backs. Notre Dame's strength this season likely will be the running game, so there's a good chance Irish fans will see another 1,000-yard rusher again in 2008. Will the Irish coaching staff be patient enough to develop a solid running game? That is the question on many people's minds. They'll need a solid running game if they want to beat the better teams on their schedule in 2008.


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