It's not uncommon for a high school player as highly touted as James Aldridge to struggle at the college level. And he's not the first running back that was never fully able to regain his pre-injury form (an off-season knee injury cost Aldridge the first five games and invaluable freshman camp practice prior to his rookie year).
An early enrollee in January 2006, Aldridge was expected to immediately augment a running attack that previously relied on the vision and quickness of Darius Walker. He was to be the hammer and downhill compliment to Walker's patient, prodding (effective) style. Instead he garnered mainly inconsequential 4th Quarter playing time as a freshman as his role was that of a clock-killer – and not in close games.
As a sophomore and junior he showed flashes, but four of his six best career contributions (MSU '07; Navy '07; Air Force '07; and North Carolina '08) resulted in Irish defeats.
Through three seasons there have been precious few reasons for Irish fans to stand up and cheer the workmanlike efforts of Aldridge on the gridiron. But as a senior in 2009 he's been afforded a final chance. Rather than fight an uphill battle for carries vs. three and possibly four other Irish tailbacks this fall, Aldridge has embraced a move to the recently lamented fullback role – a position that has had little tangible offensive impact (save for less than a handful of games from Rashon Powers-Neal) on the Notre Dame roster over the last 12 seasons.
The senior's greatest adjustment will be his development as a reliable lead blocker for a host of Irish runners behind him. Aldridge's predecessor at the position, the graduated Asaph Schwapp, was an inconsistent but willing run blocker who, coincidentally, performed most of his best work as the lead blocker for Aldridge (in the I and offset-I formation). But Schwapp was not an offensive threat during his Irish tenure, a facet of the game Aldridge is expected to bring to a previously dormant fullback spot this fall.
Aldridge's Season Outlook:We've seen some "straight-liners" over the last 25 seasons at Notre Dame and it's a rarity that a runner fitting that description enjoyed a prosperous Irish career at the tailback position (Randy Kinder being an exception, but he was blessed with rare speed...and a dominant offensive line). Aldridge has struggled to avoid tacklers who've attacked him low (below the knees) as a tailback over the last two seasons (better in '08, but awful in '07). But the innate skills Aldridge might have lacked at tailback (balance, cutting ability, vision at the second level) won't plague him as a true fullback and won't likely affect him as much when he lines up as a pro set (split formation) running back either – at least not to the extent displayed in his former role, an almost strictly I-formation runner.
Prior to 2008 I felt Aldridge needed extensive snaps to be effective. That theory has yet to be proven but it's an issue that could be resolved this season by increased playing time (Schwapp ranked third among the running backs in playing time – ahead of Aldridge – last season). Aldridge won't be a workhorse ball carrier as a fullback or split-back runner, but he could prove a valuable addition as a short-yardage back (see below) and as a threat out of the backfield on occasion. His move away from the I-formation could help both Aldridge the football player and the Irish offense.
The last great Irish fullback was Marc Edwards (1996). The last effective fullback with the ball in his hands was Rashon Powers-Neal (for the first half of 2005 prior to his season-ending suspension). To think Aldridge will morph into a player of Edwards caliber in one off-season is unlikely. But he could offer every bit the contributions that did Powers-Neal – a reliable inside runner; a threat out of the backfield; and a closer at the goal line. All essential qualities that have been in short supply over the last two seasons.
Aldridge to Fullback in ‘09: A Wise Move
Aldridge (as a Tailback) on 3rd and Short (two yards or fewer):
- 2007: Converted 5 of 11 chances (4-6 vs. Navy) into Irish first downs
- 2008: Converted 10 of 15 chances into Irish first downs
Aldridge (as a Tailback) on 4th and Short (two yards or fewer):
- 2007: Converted both opportunities (2-2) into Irish first downs
- 2008: Converted one of four opportunities into Irish first downs
Aldridge Total Carries (as a Tailback):
- 2007: 54 of his 121 carries resulted in two or fewer yards gained
- 2008: 38 of his 91 carries resulted in two or fewer yards gained