Times have changed since last summer around South Bend. At this point last off-season you'd have trouble tracking down a message board post, media member, or hopeful fan who didn't think the 2008 Irish offense would belong to Robert Hughes.
Sure we all expected improvement from Clausen, Kamara, and Allen as well, but Hughes was the sure thing. After finishing the season with a combined 246 yards and two touchdowns in season-ending victories over Duke and Stanford, Hughes was dubbed the school's next great power back: a 235-pound bull with strength, cutting ability, and light feet. He was to be the squad's feature back with (technical first-stringer) Armando Allen providing the change-of-pace.
But a 2008 nine-game span that began with a loss at Michigan State and ended with a resounding Bowl victory vs. Hawaii yielded just 249 yards (on 76 sparsely-placed carries) for Hughes. Notre Dame's Ultra-Back and leading man was reduced to a bit player by late September.
Now fast forward to fall camp and a second chance for Hughes to define his own running style. A chance to utilize his combination of power and balance to break arm tackles at the second level. And a chance to grow in the Irish screen game where he can use his vision and quick feet in space and traffic to pick up the ample yardage the Irish have often forfeited on the play over the last two seasons.
Whether Hughes or classmate Armando Allen takes the field for the first offensive play each week is inconsequential, as there are (at least) 30 touches to be split between them if both players earn their keep. But unlike Allen, Hughes likely needs more than 15 carries to maximize his potential as an offensive threat.
Hughes' Season Outlook:Hughes was my pre-camp favorite last season to lead the Irish in rushing attempts, yards, and rushing touchdowns. And despite mounting evidence to the contrary, I'm projecting roughly the same for Hughes again in '09 (attempts and yards, if not touchdowns). Coach Weis has stated that Hughes has to choose one style ("run them over or make them miss…") but I'm not sure it's that simple.
Hughes is a unique back: he displays power beyond the line of scrimmage but runs hesitantly at the line when he has to make his own holes. Aside from the game against Duke in 2007, Hughes has gained an Irish first down on just 4 of 15 chances in short-yardage situations (3rd/4th down with two or fewer yards to go). He has 182 career touches (rushing attempts/receptions) but a remarkable 66 have resulted in negative or fewer than two yards gained (discounting any that resulted in first downs or touchdowns as those are obviously positive plays).
On the plus side, Hughes has picked up 39 first downs (including touchdowns) in those 182 touches. He's more quick than fast (usually a plus at the college level) and he's shown the ability to be a "one-cut" back when he breaks to the second level...one that immediately becomes a purposeful north/south runner. That one cut or broken arm tackle has been a missing ingredient in the Irish running game over the past two seasons.
The key for Hughes will be to put the one or two sub par games he'll encounter this year behind him. There will undoubtedly be occasions in which Hughes' role is lessened because Allen is in a groove; Aldridge is picking up the necessary tough yards; or the Irish are simply slinging it all over the Stadium. But Hughes has the size, quickness, agility, and vision, to thrive in Coach Weis' offense provided he approaches 200 touches over his next 13 games.
Hughes' Career Highlights:
- Michigan State (2007): An eight-yard, pile-moving run inside the 10-yard line that set up Notre Dame's first offensive touchdown of the season. Hughes later scored his first career touchdown to pull the Irish to within three, 17-14.
- Navy (2007): The emotional three-yard touchdown run vs. the Midshipmen to begin the contest.
- Stanford (2007): Two carries of 40-plus yards (the Irish haven't had one since) and the game-winning 6-yard TD run in the 21-14 win at Stanford.
- Michigan (2008): Two short TD runs as well as gains of 18 and 13 yards in the slop vs. the Wolverines.
- Hawaii (2008): Hughes accounted for seven first downs and a touchdown in 20 touches vs. the Warriors.
Hughes' Moments to Forget:
- Both of Hughes' career fumbles have occurred inside the opponent's 5-yardline (Stanford '07 and SD State '08).
- Four feeble carries for two yards (prior to a final 7-yard clock-killer) in a starting role during the loss at MSU last season.
- Ten of Hughes 12 career touches vs. USC have resulted in two or fewer yards, including six for lost yardage.