One-Two Punch

If anyone thought the Notre Dame coaching staff was going to tip their cap as to who the primary running backs would be headed into the 2008 season, they were sorely mistaken. Both Charlie Weis and Mike Haywood have spoken on the issue, but have kept details fairly tight-vested.

During his media day press conference, Weis spoke about the situation, and how the three rushers, James Aldridge, Robert Hughes and Armando Allen, would fit into the offensive philosophy.

"I think let's split it into two and one," he said. "Okay, let's think about Armando on one side and then Robert and James on the other side, because really Robert and James are very similar players. So I think that they're kind of competing against each other to see who would get more reps. Because Armando's more that change of pace guy, so he's almost like his own separate entity. Like he's 1 A already, and then we'll see from the other two guys who gets more reps based off of performance."

Based on Hughes' production in the final two games of the season, against Duke and at Stanford, flashes of consistent and efficient rushing could be seen. In the final two contests, Hughes amassed 246 yards on 35 carries for a seven-yard average to go along with a pair of touchdowns.

These numbers carried over into the spring as well, as the Chicago, Ill. product ran for 100 yards on 22 carries, picking up the honor of offensive most-valuable player in the Blue-Gold game in April. Weis, however, isn't making up his mind based on his past production.

"Obviously, if you went off the spring, Robert had a phenomenal spring," Weis said. "If you just were picking off the spring, you would put Robert in and say you're first. But James and Robert would battle it out, and Armando's kind of off to the side."

On Thursday, after the first several days of practice, Haywood didn't shed much light on the definite starters either.

"All three running backs get equal reps throughout the entire practice," he said. "They're getting equal reps with the one's and two's and we're just rotating them and spinning them in there. That way it gives you an opportunity to evaluate them a little bit better. You evaluate them with the one's, you evaluate them with the two's so you evaluate their leadership when they're running with the second unit, because it can also tell you what leadership qualities they have to get those second guys going."

However, despite all the obscurity surrounding the halfback position, based on the early goings of fall practice and the spring game, it appears as though Hughes is in position to be the main option alongside Allen. His production towards the end of last season also showed that he could contribute early on, and displayed a greater grasp of the playbook and offensive philosophy.

"The performance didn't really boost my confidence," Hughes said. "I'd say the learning of the system and me getting comfortable and knowing what to do and about the coaching and knowing what they wanted from me."

For Allen, the second-leading rusher from 2007 with 348 yards, playing every game of his freshman campaign helped cement his self-belief in his ability to perform.

"For me, personally, it really was a confidence booster," Allen said. "My junior year in high-school and then jumping past my senior year and going into my freshman year in college and getting my hands on the field instead of watching from the sideline. The hands-on situation of getting on the field and playing as a freshman really helped boost my confidence and understand a lot of things on the field."

The Hialeah-Miami Lakes product has already made his mark on the Irish record books, reaching the highest number of kick-off returns and yards in a season with 33 returns for 704 yards. He also led the 2007 squad with 1,176 all-purpose yards, displaying his speed and ability to excel at special teams, rushing and catching passes out of the backfield. To improve on his rookie season, Allen has made significant weight gains, while ensuring he retains his most valuable asset on the field — his speed.

"Well, last year I noticed that I was obviously a little light," he said. "My goal was to put on a little weight and get stronger in the weight room so that's something that I really kept working on in the off-season. It's tough to maintain [my speed.] You only want to put on so much weight. So you set goals like maybe five pounds or 10 pounds. I don't want to be 220, so we kind of set goals for each other, and that's what I've done."

It has taken some time to adapt to the way Allen feels on the field with the added bulk — an adjustment he can easily become used to.

"Yeah, I feel it in a good way," he said. "My ability to break a couple of tackles, like a couple of arm tackles is starting to show now. So I feel like whatever I did in the off-season is starting to add up."

Now that the classmates seem poised to have a chance at breakout seasons, all that is left to do is to figure out how they compliment each other and effectively employ their contrasting styles to confuse defenses. Allen, notorious for his speed should bring a drastic change of pace to Hughes' nimble power.

"We compliment each other well," Allen said. "Obviously Robert's in the 220's and I'm barely pushing the 2's, but we understand that. All the running backs have a different style. We're very unique and whatever we do best, we compliment each other on that. We all feed off each other's energy."

Although their styles differ quite a bit, Hughes still maintains that both he and Armando can diversify their abilities to get the job done.

"We feel like we can do it all," he said. "Whatever coach needs, or whenever he calls our number, we know we'll go out there and try to do it all."

Coming in as freshmen a year ago, both Hughes and Allen experienced the jump and adjustment to life at the university. Their relationship goes far beyond the borders of Notre Dame Stadium and extends into each other's academic and personal lives.

"Me and Robert are like brothers," Allen said. "Even if it's off the field like classroom work we just help each other. We know we can lean on one another. If something's not going right, we look to each other for information and just talk to one another and make the other person feel better."

So as the season nears, and fall practice hits full swing, have the potent pair of rushers set any goals?

There's only one to be precise.

"I want to beat San Diego State," Hughes said. "That's our one goal right now." Top Stories