No. 5 – Running Backs
IrishEyes Pre-Season Rank: No. 5 Armando Allen produced career bests in rushing yards (697); yards-per-carry (4.9) and rushing attempts (142) despite missing more then four full games due to a recurring ankle injury. The Irish ground game totaled five separate 100-yard rushing efforts (four from Allen and one from classmate Robert Hughes), a number that exceeded the previous two seasons' effort combined. Hughes posted career bests in rushing yards (416) and touchdowns (5) in 88 attempts.
Best Game(s): Michigan, as Armando Allen played the best game (unsportsmanlike conduct penalty notwithstanding) of any back since Darius Walker's final contest in the Sugar Bowl following the 2006 season. Regarding the entire unit, the effort put forth by Hughes, Jonas Gray, Theo Riddick (and Golden Tate) in Allen's absence vs. Purdue was top notch.
Worst Game: 12 carries totaling 55 yards produced by the running back unit vs. Navy. There's no need for an addition to this category.
Why they could rank higher: I don't think you could argue for the running backs any higher, but ND produced its best rushing attack in three seasons, and arguably one as strong as the 2006 unit as the combination of Allen and Hughes basically matched then-workhorse Darius Walker's regular season efforts. The addition of Tate as a direct-snap, Wildcat QB greatly aided the ground game when utilized properly and the Irish fielded a legitimate, January 1st bowl quality running attack for the season's first two months.
Why they could rank lower: Improvement was a certainty on the heels of the two worst rushing efforts in program history. 3.8 yards per carry and 13 rushing touchdowns (five from non-running backs) is hardly cause for celebration.
Final Thoughts: Allen developed into a quality, if oft-injured college running back this season while Hughes improved after a poor 2008 campaign. Freshman Theo Riddick flashed future promise in limited meaningful action though fumbling his first carry in his first career start certainly didn't help. This unit can't rank higher than No. 5, but you'll have trouble arguing them lower than this spot using any critical 12-game analysis as well.
No. 6 – Offensive Line
IrishEyes Pre-Season Rank: No. 10 The group was solid in September; allowable in October; and once again sub par by season's end.
Best Game: Michigan, and it might have been the unit's best effort since 2006 vs. Penn State.
Worst Game(s): USC, Navy, and Pittsburgh all took it to Notre Dame's front five as did Stanford on the season-ending drive. The Irish OL made Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan into a star and USC pass rusher Everson Griffen into Deacon Jones.
Why they could rank higher: Don't push your luck...
Why they could rank lower: Notre Dame averaged 3.8 yards per carry with the best quarterback-wide receiver combination in the country on its side. The skill positions of QB, WR, WR, and TE contain at least three, if not four future 1st Round Draft Picks…there's no excuse for defensive ends to tee-off on this group in critical pass protection situations. Poorly developed depth reared its ugly head when sophomore right guard Trevor Robinson badly injured his ankle in Week Eight – a malady that plagued him through Week Eleven.
Final Thoughts: Costly penalties and ill-timed mental (and physical) pass protection errors ultimately doomed what had been a five-game rebirth of the much-maligned Irish offensive line. In the end the group was no better than a solid C+ as a unit but it nonetheless surpassed expectations.
No. 7 – Kick-off and Punt Returns
IrishEyes Pre-Season Rank: No. 8 The Irish returned just 18 punts over the 12-game season and 15 were uneventful. The longest kick return of the season totaled 52 yards and occurred back in Week Two, by "decision-maker" Barry Gallup, Jr.
In other words, it was hardly reminiscent of the days of the Rocket for the Irish return teams in '09.
Best Game: Pittsburgh, thanks to Golden Tate's 89-yard punt return touchdown that gave the Irish a fighting chance midway through the fourth quarter.
Worst Game: UConn, with two personal fouls (one on a kick return, the other after a 21-yard punt return effort by Tate) and four kick returns of 18, 22, 7, and 28 yards.
Why they could rank higher: A final punt return ranking of 24th nationally with a kick return effort just inside the bottom half of teams at No. 65. But the punt return ranking is skewed by the dearth of total attempted returns (too many fair catches) as in reality, the Irish return units brought little to the table with the exception of one fantastic effort by Tate and Co. in Heinz Field.
Why they could rank lower: Aside from Gallup's 52-yard effort, Notre Dame kick returners never topped the 40-yard mark and no kick return exceeded 31 yards after Week Four (you'd figure there'd be a hole made by default that Riddick could have fallen through at some point).
The unit's lack of discipline and penchant for penalty befitted the sloppiness of the team as a whole and I could make an argument for them as low as No. 10, but their overall impact on the game is much less than that of the units that will be featured in Part III tomorrow.
Final Thoughts: There's a reason Notre Dame has had one kick return touchdown since late 2002.
Tomorrow: We'll name units 8-11, a review that includes two position groups of which much was expected in '09.