Spring Preview: Running Back

Spring practice brings new opportunities for college football hopefuls, and with a new coach in place coaching the running backs this spring, we expect to see some stiff competition for carries in the fall. Which player will win the majority of carries this fall?

It's important to point out that Notre Dame will add two talented freshmen halfbacks to the stable this fall who might very well push for playing time, but neither will be competing this spring. Spring is a time for the current backs to impress, and they'll have a new set of eyes watching them this spring.

I have to say I really liked what I heard when listening to Irish running backs coach Tony Alford speak with the media for the first time. Alford made it clear that anyone can win the job, and anyone can lose the job at any time. It appears the position is an open tryout at this time, and once anyone lands the starting job, they'll have to continue to perform at a high level to keep it. This should keep the backs pushing each other, and that should be a good thing for the Irish.

While I do think Notre Dame has four talented running backs in senior James Aldridge, juniors Armando Allen and Robert Hughes, and sophomore Jonas Gray, I don't think any really got the chance to shine the previous few years because none really had considerable carries in any particular game. And when they did get opportunities none really made much of those opportunities.

I look at the 2008 stats and I see 10 total touchdowns from the entire backfield---less than one rushing touchdown per game---that's not getting the job done. Allen was the leading rusher but only averaged 45 yards rushing per game and 585 total yards. His 4.4 yards per carry also led the team, and while a somewhat respectable number, his longest run from scrimmage was just 21 yards.

The Irish haven't been making plays in the running game, and while some of the problems are up front, the running backs also have to share some of the blame. Hopefully Alford can help them get more production from the running game in 2009.

Allen is now two years removed from serious injury and he should be 100 percent healthy heading into the spring. Allen has that quick burst you want in a running back, but he hasn't shown he can be a consistent back running inside. Towards the end of 2008 Allen looked to be gaining confidence, and at times looked to be the best back on the roster. The junior's problem at times appears to be recognition of running lanes and finding the creases that former Irish back Darius Walker excelled at finding in Weis' zone running scheme.

However, Allen is a receiving threat out of the backfield, finishing second on the team in receptions with 50 in 2008, and he also has the speed to make the big play, so he'll likely see the field a lot in 2009. Currently he's the most complete back the Irish have.

Senior James Aldridge is in his final year of eligibility, and a lot of times seniors have their best season as their college career approaches the end. Aldridge has struggled to find his game after knee surgery, and doesn't appear to be as quick or as elusive as he was before the injury. What he does do well is run with power, and at times he's shown he can be a force running inside. I think for the 5-foot-11, 215-pound halfback to be most effective he needs to get about 20 carries a game. Reaching 20 carries a game will likely be difficult for any running back in this offense. Becoming a better receiving threat, and showing a little more burst would go a long way in helping Aldridge earn some carries this fall. Still, one gets the feeling they'd love to see Aldridge get 20 carries because he runs very hard when given the chance.

Junior Robert Hughes has a somewhat disappointing sophomore season after a strong freshman campaign. Hughes averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, and gained only 412 yards on the ground after showing flashes of brilliance as a freshman. Many felt Hughes was the leading candidate for the starting position heading into 2008, but he didn't seem like the same player in 2008. He didn't seem to run with power, and he didn't show the same burst and light feet he showed earlier in 2007. Hughes did look like the freshman version in the bowl game against Hawaii, so maybe his injury is behind him. He'll have a heated battle this spring just to earn some carries in the fall. Hughes will have to keep his weight down to continue to stay in the hunt, but he's always been a hard worker so that shouldn't be a problem.

The one player most Irish fans are intrigued to watch this spring is sophomore Jonas Gray. The 5-foot-10, 230-pound sophomore came physically prepared to play as a freshman, and he impressed in his limited carries. Gray averaged 4.3 yards per carry in his 21 touches, but he showed some nice lateral movement for a guy his size, and a quick burst as well as the ability to find the creases. Gray is clearly a talented back, and he looks to have the body of a college senior currently. He'll be one to watch this spring as he'll put a lot of pressure on Hughes and Aldridge for playing time. That should make all three of them better players.

Head coach Charlie Weis likes to use one running back the majority of the time if he can, but he needs a complete back to do that. Armando Allen has proven he's the most complete back at this point. The other three players are good receivers out of the backfield, but Allen brings that burst to the passing game the others haven't shown as of yet. I expect Allen to continue to play a lot this fall, and he'll likely rotate with one of Aldridge, Hughes or Gray. The real battle this spring will be between those three.

At fullback it's pretty much Steve Paskorz or nobody. Paskorz made the switch last year after starting his career at linebacker for the Irish. The 6-foot-2, 230 pound junior showed signs of the toughness one would need to be a quality fullback, but he's still learning and his playing time will be determined this spring and early in fall camp. If he can be a solid lead blocker for the Irish he'll play. If he still has a ways to go I expect to see more three wide receiver or two tight end sets out of the Irish.

Notre Dame has some quality depth at running back. All four players could likely start at a number of DI schools. They'll add two talented freshmen to the mix as well. When Alford was asked how he was going to keep all of his players happy with only one being able to play at any given time Alford simply stated that wasn't his job. It's their job to make themselves happy, and that's the way it should be. That attitude should make for some fierce competition this spring and fall, and also hopefully some quality performances from the running backs in 2009.

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