Prediction #23 – Armando Allen and Robert Hughes Will Share the LoadFor the sake of the prediction, we'll set the difference in total rushing attempts at 40 (roughly three per game).
Barring injury, I don't believe you'll see either Armando Allen or Robert Hughes become a consistent 20-carry-per-game back this season.
- Fact: No Irish runner carried the ball 20 or more times in a contest last season (Allen and Hughes combined for seven games with between 16-19 carries while James Aldridge reached 16 carries once). Aldridge carried the ball 32 times in the loss to Navy in 2007 – the only RB since Darius Walker to reach the 20-carry total in a single game.
- Statistics and Conjecture: 122 of Allen's 134 carries last season occurred on 1st and 2nd down. I believe both Allen and Hughes will be heavily involved in the Irish screen game this season, allowing Hughes to remain on the field more in '09. (Though Allen will obviously catch more total passes, Hughes will no longer head to the sideline when a screen pass is the initial call.) Add the fact that Hughes is the obvious choice between the two in short-yardage situations – Allen posted just 11 rushing attempts on 3rd down (seven of which would be considered long-yardage situations) last season – and the disparity between their projected carries continues to shrink.
- Reasonable Opinion: The Irish offense still needs to throw to win. No matter how improved the offensive line might be, there's little chance the Irish, with a pair of potential All Americans at receiver, won't throw as often as they run in ‘09. Aside from (possible) matchups with Purdue, Washington, Navy, and Washington State, grinding out victories with a punishing ground attack isn't in the cards for this roster. And while the Irish offense will certainly be called upon to put a few large leads on ice, there's likely to be a game or three in which Clausen has to throw 40 passes for the Irish to pull out a victory. Notre Dame won't run enough to establish a weekly workhorse 'back.
In July of 2008, legions of Notre Dame fans anointed Robert Hughes as the team's feature back for the upcoming season, due largely to his season-ending efforts vs. Duke and Stanford (a combined 35 carries for 245 yards and two TD). Twelve months later, the consensus opinion that Armando Allen will carry the load and the Hughes is the team's short-yardage plugger is likely just as off base. The duo possess complimentary talents…both compliment what the team's head coach tries to accomplish with his running/screen game.
In Weis' first two seasons, Darius Walker carried the load with 253 (2005) and 255 (2006) attempts. His backup both seasons was Travis Thomas (63 carries in '05; 37 attempts in '06). That disparity won't appear on a season-end stat sheet in the near future, as running back depth (if not consistent production) has hit its apex in the Weis era. You'll see a heavy dose of Allen/Hughes, along with another 80-100 carries from converted fullback James Aldridge.
None of the trio is established as a top tier college running back, a scenario that leaves the door open for sophomore Jonas Gray or freshmen Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick to emerge with a knock-out fall camp…in other words, Allen Pinkett, Autry Denson, and Darius Walker are not walking through that locker room door. No single ‘back will carry the load in 2009.
Prediction #24 – The 2009 Touchdown ChartI'm on record that Michael Floyd will lead the Irish in touchdowns scored this season; that senior James Aldridge will score his first touchdown (and his second and third) at Notre Dame Stadium; that Irish running backswill total 15 or fewer (rushing touchdowns); and that sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph will score more touchdowns than any tight end since 1977. So there's no reason not to round out the rest of the order for the upcoming season.
- Michael Floyd: I'm estimating 13-14 – all via the pass.
- Golden Tate: Just behind Floyd in the 12-13 range with at least one run…and possibly a punt return for a player that has consistently lacked one extra block during his returns.
- Armando Allen: With nearly as many receiving as rushing.
- Robert Hughes: Hughes is my choice to lead the Irish in rushing scores while adding another in the screen game.
- Kyle Rudolph: My on-file prediction states five scores.
- James Aldridge: Look for a Senior Day score vs. UConn as well.
- Robert Blanton: Blanton didn't show blazing speed on his interception touchdown vs. Purdue last season…he simply decided no one was stopping him from hitting paydirt. I'll take that over a sprint down the sidelines any day.
- Mike Ragone: One (in mid-October) – and it will feel great for the still-recovering tight end.
- Robby Parris: One in September.
- Jimmy Clausen: One – none last season; two as a freshman.
- Jonas Gray/Cierre Wood/Theo Riddick: Whoever wins the No. 3 running back role will also hit paydirt at least once – probably against Washington State.
- John Goodman: A nod to athleticism
- Brian Smith: Some guys just find the end zone.
- Harrison Smith: A nod to athleticism, Part II
- To Be Determined: As the season draws closer and we've watched the position battles of fall camp I'll list a few other candidates for the final 2009 touchdown contribution list.
- 3rd Down Efficiency: No. 20
- Pass Efficiency Defense: No. 22
- 4th Down Efficiency: No. 24 (held in 8 of 13 4th down attempts)
- Fumble Recoveries: No. 38 (11 total – tied with several teams)
- Total Defense: No. 39
- Scoring Defense: No. 42
- Pass Defense (Yardage): No. 43
- Rushing Defense: No. 45
- Turnovers Gained: No. 42
- 1st Downs Allowed: No. 47
- Interceptions: No. 49
- Sacks: No. 50
- Red Zone Defense: No. 61
- Tackles-for-Loss: No. 106
Either 11 or 12 players have accounted for the team's touchdown total in each of Weis' four seasons. With the roster's influx of speed, quickness, and developing playmakers – coupled with a few less-than-stellar opponents on the slate – I expect that number to rise to its highest total since 1996 (16).
Prediction #25 – Notre Dame's Highest Defensive Team Ranking Will (Again) Be Third-Down Efficiency
Though not as flashy as sacks or interceptions and certainly not as important as rushing defense, turnovers gained, or the coup de grace: scoring defense; 3rd Down Efficiency – the ability to get off the field on third down, is a key element to any successful defense.
Last season, the Irish ranked No. 20 in 3rd Down Efficiency Defense, holding their opponents to a 32.76% success rate (one spot ahead of Florida in the final rankings). The top five were: Florida State, USC, Alabama, Auburn, and TCU, three of which finished among the nation's top five in total defense (TCU, USC, and Alabama; FSU finished 15th).
Notre Dame's final 2008 ranking in the 14 major defensive category is listed below (119 teams):
Co-Defensive Coordinator Jon Tenuta brings consistent and aggressive zone-blitz pressure, forcing opposing quarterbacks and hot receivers to make quick decisions. The goal of the pressure isn't necessarily a sack, but rather, the total break-down and destruction of the offense's intent on a given play. When executed to perfection, the approach creates myriad quarterback hurries, incompletions, and turnovers and clogs the running lanes for opposing ‘backs.
Don't judge the success of the 2009 Irish front seven by its final sack number. Use 3rd Down Efficiency as a starting point…with turnovers, rushing defense, scoring defense, and of course, the team's Won/Loss record as your criteria for assessing a final grade.