Tailback production

Of the subjects that have concerned Irish fans in this recruiting season, at or near the top of the list is the rushing production that N.D. has gotten from the tailback position. Let's take a look the numbers a little more closely.

In retrospect, it's probably not surprising that N.D.'s running game struggled some this year. N.D.'s four tailbacks in 2001 were Julius Jones (168 carries for 718 yards, 4.3 per carry), Tony Fisher (78 carries for 384 yards, 4.9 per carry), Terrence Howard (48 carries for 160 yards, 3.3 per carry) and Ryan Grant (29 carries for 110 yards, 3.8 per carry). Fisher, Jones and Howard had all at various points in their career had 100-yard rushing days, while Grant's only significant outing was a 77-yard effort in the season finale at Purdue. Thus, of the 1372 yards gained and the 323 carries in 2001, N.D. in 2002 returned only 110 of those yards and 29 of those carries.

In 2002, the top four tailbacks were Grant (261 carries for 1085 yards, 4.2 per carry), Rashon Powers-Neal (77 carries for 333 yards, 4.3 per carry), Marcus Wilson (39 carries for 129 yards, 2.8 per carry) and Tim O'Neill (9 carries for 75 yards, 8.3 per carry). The only one missing next year will be former walk-on O'Neill, though Powers-Neal is thought by some to be headed for the fullback position. Thus, the returning experience factor will be greatly enhanced, and more so yet if Julius Jones does in fact return to school and play next year.

Now, despite the massive loss of experience from 2001, total tailback production in 2002 was remarkably similar to 2001. In 2002, N.D. tailbacks averaged 123.2 yards per game on 29.7 carries per game for 4.15 yards per carry. In 2001, N.D. tailbacks averaged 124.7 yards per game on 29.4 carries per game for 4.25 yards per carry. The reason for N.D.'s diminished rushing production in 2002 (N.D. overall went from 3.9 per carry to 3.4) was that in 2001 Holiday was used largely as a runner (666 rushing yards and 784 passing) and in 2002 he was used principally as a passer (232 rushing yards and 1788 passing). Moreover, as sack yardage is assessed against rushing totals, the larger number of pass attempts and sacks in 2002 weighed down the rushing average.

This is not to say, however, that N.D. was a pass-happy team by NCAA standards. Despite the greater focus on the pass this year, N.D. actually had fewer passing attempts (341 passing attempts plus 38 sacks) than total carries by tailbacks (386). N.D. also had about another 100 non-tailback rushing efforts, including about 50 non-sack runs by Holiday, about 30 runs by fullbacks and about another 20 rushes of various sorts, including reverses and the like. Overall, the Irish had about 61% rushing attempts and 39% passing attempts as the NCAA calculates these, which is a little more run-heavy than the average team's split of about 55-45 in favor of rushing. And, it's worth pointing out here that as frustrating as the offense was at times in 2002, it was an improvement over 2001. In 2001 N.D. averaged 4.3 yards per play and 289.7 yards per game and in 2002 N.D. averaged 4.7 per play and 313.5 per game. Neither total, of course, is stellar but at least some slight improvement was evident.

Now, to return to the tailback situation: In Willingham's offense, the quarterback is unlikely to ever be featured as a runner, which means that the load will be heavier yet on the tailback position to generate a credible rushing attack. This realization has probably fueled the concern of Irish fans about the depth at that position.

Let me start by saying that Ryan Grant may be the most underappreciated 1000-yard rusher in N.D. history. His sophomore campaign compares well with those of Becton, Kinder and Denson all of whom carried a good part of the load their second years and ultimately proved to be good N.D. tailbacks. Here are their sophomore rushing totals:

Becton (1992): 68 carries, 386 yards (5.5 per carry)

Kinder (1994): 119 carries, 702 yards (5.9 per carry)

Denson (1996): 202 carries, 1179 yards (5.8 per carry)

Note that Grant had more yards than any of them but Denson. But two aspects of Grant's season that were worrisome: his large number of carries and his fairly low per-carry average. Only Denson came anywhere close to Grant's 261 carries, but even he ended the season at right about 200 carries, which is right where Grant hit the wall (Grant through 202 carries had 920 yards -- he had only 165 on 59 carries for the rest of the season). As to per carry average, a successful rushing attack usually requires one or two feature backs who average around 5 yards per carry. N.D.'s rushing attack was actually meeting those levels through the first eight games, but as Grant approached the 200-carry mark for the season N.D.'s rushing attack went over the cliff.

Let's look at the breakdown:

Grant

First 8 games: 175 carries, 813 yards (4.7 per carry, 102 per game)

Last 5 games: 86 carries, 272 yards (3.2 per carry, 54 per game)

Powers-Neal

First 8 games: 46 carries, 241 yards (5.2 per carry)

Last 5 games: 31 carries, 92 yards (3.0 per carry)

Wilson

First 8 games: 29 carries, 106 yards (3.7 per carry)

Last 5 games: 10 carries, 23 yards (2.3 per carry)

Collectively, N.D. tailbacks were gaining 147.9 yards per game and 4.7 per carry through the F.S.U. game and from that point on gained only 87.8 yards per game and 3.3 per carry. It's hard to attribute the falloff to an increase in the level of competition; of the last five opponents really only U.S.C. had a consistently good run defense and Navy and Rutgers were on the whole probably the two weakest teams that N.D. faced this year.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that this very young backfield hit the wall at some point in the Boston College game. Part of it was surely physical (both Grant and Powers-Neal battled injuries beginning fairly early on the in the season) and part of it was mental. The rash of unforced fumbles in the Boston College game clearly weighed heavily on their minds, and when Grant put the ball on the ground again against Navy and was benched in favor on the apparently more sure-handed Powers-Neal, Grant began to look progressively more tentative.

There were other factors, too, of course. In the first eight games N.D. was +12 on the turnover margin and was -7 for the last five. As a result, the Irish, who had rarely trailed in the first eight games, trailed for long stretches of four of the last five. Holiday was also hurt significantly in the B.C., U.S.C. and N.C. State games. As much attention as is rightly focused on tailback depth, quarterback depth may be just as crucial to a successful running game. With Holiday out of the games or playing but limited by injury, and with the Irish often trailing, the opportunities for deception and unpredictable play calling diminished greatly. N.D. was as a practical matter confined to perhaps 40% of its playbook for most of those last five games and it showed at every level. Consider that, for example, with the score 0-0 and Holiday in the game in the Gator Bowl, Grant got off to a nice start with 6 carries for 29 yards (4.8 per carry). (N.D., in fact, led in total yardage 57 to 2 at the point that Holiday was hurt.) After Holiday was hurt, Grant was held to about 2 yards per carry.

Whatever external factors might have been present, however, no close observer of Irish football this year could fail to notice the weary downward spriral of N.D.'s backfield starting in the B.C. game. Ryan Grant as he played in the first 8 games of the year can be a successful starting tailback for N.D., about that there can be no question. Rashon Powers-Neal as he played the first 8 games of the season could be an important weapon. The question is how to keep them at that level or higher for the whole season.

Realistically, Grant will probably be more effective for the whole season, particularly late in the season, if he carries about 200 times rather than 261. Grant rushing 200 times for around 5 per carry (and thus about 1000 yards) would be a tremendous weapon.

That leaves, however, a significant number of carries for other tailbacks. N.D. through the first 8 games was actually averaging over 31 carries per game by tailbacks. Assuming that the Irish play 13 games again next year, that leaves almost exactly 200 other carries that have to be absorbed by other tailbacks. Julius Jones is the logical candidate, assuming he returns to N.D., is in shape and focused. A steady rotation of Jones and Grant would create a very unpleasant problem for opposing defenses.

Other backs may step up as well. Powers-Neal clearly played well enough in 2002 to deserve a significant number of carries if he stays at tailback, though he may be better suited for fullback. Running back recruits from last year Schiccatano and Jenkins have not yet seen the field, though the former is also thought by some to be headed for the fullback position. Jenkins apparently has looked good in practice. Wilson may actually have the best straight-line speed of the bunch and looked good at times in 2002, but his ability to hang onto the ball and his capacity to run between the tackles will have to take major steps forward before he can be considered an every down back. Recruit Travis Thomas is well-regarded and other N.D. recruits, notably here Gardner and Parrish, were excellent high school tailbacks.

While Irish fans may yearn for a spectacular, "game-breaking" back, some of N.D.'s best offenses have been built on backs who hardly fit this mold. Lee Becton, for example, in 1993 averaged 6.4 yards per carry, but was hardly a game-breaker; Becton was never reliably timed under 4.6 in the 40-yard dash and Holtz once joked that Becton was far too slow to pull a hamstring. But opposing defenses got a belly full of his driving legs and kept whiffing on his unique, half-juke move. Becton may not have been spectacular, but seemingly every time they unpiled after one of his runs, the Irish were 6 yards further down field. Of course, Becton benefitted from better offensive line play than N.D. has had recently, but in a sense that just helps to put into better perspective Grant's gutsy 1000-yard effort in 2002.

N.D. has the backs to have this kind of rugged attack; the issue is putting the pieces together.

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