Earlier this week, Irish Eyes examined the team's top four position groups heading into fall camp (WR, DB, Kick/Punt Coverage, and QB). Today we look at our No. 5 ranked group, a slotting that represents the first difficult choice in our overall rankings (Unit No. 6, featured tomorrow, could easily have filled this spot).
Note: These rankings will be updated at the end of August and weekly throughout the season.
Irish Eyes Pre-Camp Rank: No. 5
Starters Entering Camp: Junior TB Armando Allen and senior fullback James Aldridge.
Potential Starter: Junior TB Robert Hughes
Highest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: Its current ranking – No. 5. At least five, if not six other position groups are as strong or decidedly better at this juncture.
Lowest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: No. 10, due to a possible repeat performance from the offensive line. Also, while I have faith we've yet to see the best of the Allen/Hughes duo, there's a mounting body of evidence that calls into question my forecasted improvement. The running back unit possesses the widest gap of plausible performance level heading into '09.
Strengths: The trio of Aldridge, Allen, and Hughes has started 23 of the squad's last 25 games, so experience or adaptation to "the speed of the game" is no longer an issue. Each of the three should be prepared for the opponent's level of play from the outset of every Saturday in '09. In other words, the trio's tentative approach during the Michigan State loss last season should be a thing of the past for two junior tailbacks and a senior fullback with 746 career carries.
Also expected to augment the '09 Irish three-back attack is new offensive line coach and running game coordinator Frank Verducci. 2007 and 2008 produced the worst, and second-worst rushing attacks in Irish history. Blame cannot fall solely at the feet of the previous scheme, but its hard to argue against the merits of change in this situation.
Allen has shown a solid burst through the hole, if not in the open field, and also has had the opportunity to flash his quickness in the screen game (vs. Air Force in 2007 and against Stanford, Navy, and Hawaii in '08). Hughes was the fan base's darling entering last season after a strong finish as a frosh in '07 but outside of solid efforts vs. Michigan, Navy, and Hawaii, the big back struggled as a sophomore. He is, coincidentally, my pre-season choice for the offense's most improved player (of course, that prediction and two dollars won't buy you an ND Hot Dog at halftime).
Aldridge's move to fullback this season has three likely results:
- More punch in the running game: His mere presence will improve the team's rushing production from the FB position. Any semblance of a threat is a major upgrade and its possible Aldridge could have his greatest impact on the offense in his new role as a senior.
- An additional receiving threat: At worst, Aldridge's production as a receiver will be considered a wash over the fullbacks from '06, '07, and '08. At best, he'll add an 8-15 reception threat and downhill runner after the catch.
- A new approach to short-yardage: Aldridge is an unproven lead blocker, while departed FB Asaph Schwapp did his best work as a lead fullback in the I and off-set I formations. Regardless, the Irish have struggled since the end of 2005 on 3rd and/or 4th-and-short (outside of Brady Quinn QB-keepers). It remains to be seen if backup FB, junior Steve Paskorz can quickly adapt to Schwapp's lead blocker role, but perhaps a change in approach and scheme will produce an automatic upgrade. If not, the 2009 short-yardage offense won't be any worse than those of the last 25-plus games.
Sophomore Jonas Gray showed flashes in limited action last season but ball security will be a key to Gray's future opportunities (his late-game fumble vs. Navy led to the near-disaster in Baltimore last season). The Irish running game (including the screen game) has a chance to be the team's best since Darius Walker's sophomore season (2005). With 100 career starts along the offensive line, and 746 carries from its main three backs, there are no more convenient excuses for what has been a soft rushing attack.
Weaknesses: Notre Dame has lacked a productive, explosive presence in its backfield since Julius Jones (2003). Hughes and Aldridge (and Gray, in limited action) produced no carries in excess of 19 yards last season. They exceeded the 19-yard barrier on five occasions in 2007 (Aldridge with a 43-yard burst vs. Michigan State; Hughes with two long runs apiece to end the season vs. Duke and Stanford). Armando Allen ran for a 21-yard gain on three separate occasions vs. Purdue last September but likewise produced zero runs in excess of 19 yards in the remaining 12 contests(and none in '07). While this group of runners has obviously been hamstrung by poor play along the offensive line (20-plus yard carries aren't possible when you're consistently getting hit at or near the line of scrimmage), at least some of the burden must fall on the ‘backs as well. As a group they've proved too easy to bring down in one-on-one situations and by opposing arm tackles when there's a glimmer of daylight at the second level of the defense.
The Irish screen game has struggled for two seasons as well, though it played a key role in the team's blowout victory in Hawaii (Clausen completed five screen passes for 86 combined yards to Hughes/Allen. Three of the completions resulted in first downs while the fourth produced an Allen 18-yard touchdown on 3rd and 9). But for every highlight clip vs. Hawaii on a day in which nothing went awry, there's equal film evidence of teams ranking from No. 1 (USC) to No. 101 (Syracuse) on the defensive spectrum that absolutely annihilated the Irish screen game.
Finally, the tandem of Aldridge and Hughes are a paltry 18-38 on 3rd or 4th and short (two or fewer yards) over the last two seasons. (Allen converted on two of five similar opportunities last year, but that's obviously not his role.)
Year-End Prediction and Ranking: The Pre-Camp No. 5 ranking is a nod to he unit's experience and relative depth, as well as the experience and talent of the 9-10 players that will accompany them on each snap.
It's unrealistic to think both Allen and Hughes will emerge as stars this season: great players that needed only a new scheme and re-dedicated line to showcase their game-breaking potential. Likewise, it's unrealistic to think that the duo will stagnate. Allen showed flashes last season; Hughes the same during late-season efforts in both '07 and '08; and Aldridge will receive more snaps and game action, if not carries, than at any point in his college career. The possible emergence of an underclassman contributor (Cierre Woods? Gray?) adds credence to the theory that this position group is ready to take a meaningful leap after last season's requisite baby step from 2007.
Allen, Hughes, Aldridge, and the rest of the backfield represent the X-factor for the 2009 Irish. Will they carry the load or continue to burden the Irish offense?