When Notre Dame spring practice started, new running backs coach Tony Alford said that he had no preconceptions about what his players could do, but he admitted that his opinions were forming quickly.
"These guys are good guys," Alford said at the start of camp. "They work hard, so I've been impressed with that much of it."
Alford did not want to say that last year's top guy, Armando Allen, is the leading candidate to maintain that role, but he did say that the junior-to-be is definitely a leader.
"I see him cementing himself as the leader in that room, but to say that he's the lead guy, I can't say that, you'd have to talk to Coach Weis about that," Alford laughed. "The kid's been very productive this spring and has been a real good leader for us this spring, so that much I am pleased about."
According to Alford, Allen leads by example as much as anything.
"He works hard and he has the ability to make plays. He doesn't make mistakes, he's a smart football player," said Alford. "He thinks the game and that in itself lends itself to leadership too because he doesn't make mistakes so when he says things and does things, guys are going to take notice."
Allen has worked on his elusiveness this spring and has seen the running backs as a unit improve.
"For me personally, just making that one guy miss in the open field, I have improved on that tremendously," said Allen. "As a group, I think we're headed in the right direction."
Head coach Charlie Weis has said that he wants to see Allen's classmate, Robert Hughes, either play big or lose some weight. Alford believes that Hughes would be better served using his weight to his advantage.
"You don't have to make everybody in the world miss," Alford said. "You can run through a lot of things just by the sheer size and strength."
CHARTING DEPTH: Running back is one of the deepest positions on the Notre Dame roster and while last year's rotation featured Allen, Hughes and James Aldridge, sophomore-to-be Jonas Gray is looking to work his way into it in 2009.
Alford has made it clear that he has no preference on using a lead guy or a committee and that the decision will ultimately be made by what the players show in practice.
"Everyone's got a role and that role might be 75 snaps, that role might be 40 snaps, that role might be 10 snaps," he said. "You will dictate your role by what you do in practice every single day."
Gray has had a bit of an up-and-down spring thus far.
"He looks like a guy who hasn't had a lot of experience, but he looks as talented a runner as the other guys. He had a bunch of yards rushing the other day but then he had a couple of big miscues as well," Weis said. "I said to him after the game, ‘In a scrimmage I can put you back in after miscues, but if it was a game and there's 80,000 people there, you'd be hanging out on the bench right over there with me.'"
Alford has seen the same things as Weis and puts some of the responsibility on himself.
"The kid's got ability to make plays now. He's just a young guy that's got to concentrate on the details of the game," said Alford. "All of the little nuances that are going to make him a really good football player that he's got to hone in on, but that's my job as a coach too, to help him hone in on those things."
Alford sees Gray as a mix between the two backs in the class above him.
"He's not as big as Robert, but he's bigger than Armando," said Alford. "He's a strong young guy and he's got good speed and agility and movement. I think he's got a combination of the two. He's still developing what he is and who is going to become.
"The biggest thing with him right now is figuring out that every single snap, every single snap, you've got to hone in on the small things."
Gray should get a real shot in the fall, provided he earns the trust of the staff.
"He is going through some growing pains but the kid, when he has the ball in his hands, is a very dangerous runner," said Weis.
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR: Aldridge is entering is final year of eligibility in the fall and with three talented halfbacks on the roster not including himself, he has split his time between halfback and fullback.
When Asaph Schwapp decided against seeking a fifth year of eligibility, Notre Dame was left with Steve Paskorz as the team's only scholarship fullback. The staff decided that Aldridge's straight-ahead, hard-running style would make him the best fit to split backfield duties.
Weis has been pleased with what he has seen out of Aldridge at fullback. What he may lack in blocking, Aldridge will make up for with his ability as a runner. Notre Dame believes that it will be able to shuffle personnel groupings without opponents knowing by putting Aldridge and a back like Allen on the field at the same time.
"I think there's some serious options that would open up if this continues to move in the direction it's going right now," said Weis.
INJURIES, ETC.: Aldridge missed some time recently with a banged up shoulder, but Weis did not sound too concerned.
Walk-on Bobby Burger is listed as the team's second fullback, behind Paskorz, but Burger has turned eyes at tight end and would probably be used more as a move tight end than a fullback.