Crowded House

IrishEyes begins its Spring Preview with a look at Notre Dame's running backs.

With the start of spring practice approximately one month away, IrishEyes begins its 11-position group preview of each player on the Irish roster. Today's edition: running backs.

Cast of Characters – Running Backs

The Irish return four letter-winners: Seniors-to-be Armando Allen and Robert Hughes; junior Jonas Gray; sophomore Theo Riddick. Also returning is sophomore Cierre Wood (who was withheld from action last season) and senior fullback Steve Paskorz.

The lone incoming freshman running back is Cameron Roberson from Newbury Park, CA. Roberson will have his first chance to compete next August.

2009 Playing Time: :

  • Allen: 9 games (8 starts) 183:12 with 4 special teams appearances
  • Hughes: 11 games (2 starts) 118:10 with 1 special teams appearance
  • Riddick: 12 games (1 start) 44:01 with 60 special teams appearances
  • Gray: 8 games (1 start) 35:48 with 36 special teams appearances
  • Paskorz: 2 games (no starts) 2:31 with 11 special teams appearances

The Leading Man – Armando Allen

Emerged from two seasons of low-impact play to become an invaluable starter at half back for the 2009 squad. Though Allen combated an ankle injury four the season's final 10 weeks, he still managed to lead the Irish in rushing for the second straight season, running for a career-high 697 yards and averaging a personal best 4.9 yards per carry. Allen nearly double his average yards-per-game from his sophomore campaign (45.0 to 87.1) last year.

Allen starred in a 38-34 loss at Michigan, posting a career-high 139 yards on 21 carries, scoring a touchdown and adding the go-ahead two-point conversion late in the contest. The versatile junior continued to produce in the passing game, grabbing 28 balls for 216 yards, the bulk of which occurred in mid-November (Allen caught 15 passes in a two-game stretch vs. Pittsburgh and Connecticut).

We Have Questions: With a new head coach and position coach (Tim Hinton), can Allen – a player who last season seemed to be an ideal fit in a solo-back offensive set – win the lead role over younger, perhaps more talented runners? Why hasn't Allen exceeded 26 yards on a rushing attempt in his 362-carry career? Can that change in the new offensive scheme that spreads the field (i.e., Allen should face fewer Cover 2 and/or deep middle defenders at the second level this season.)

Hope Springs Eternal: Allen won over most of Irish nation last season with his tough, consistent approach each week. Collectively, his four-tiered skill-set (inside running vision; receiving ability; pass blocking acumen, ball security) ranks first among all Irish ‘backs, but he's not head-and-shoulders above the troops in any category. Allen became a reliable ball carrier and inside runner for (arguably) the team's *best rushing attack in the Charlie Weis Era, but he has to date lacked the vision and/or balance necessary to break a game (or play) open at the second level. That must change for Allen to reach his full potential as a collegiate runner.

*(The 12-game stats back up the claim…but the "Eye Test" suggests the '05 and '06 BCS squads have the edge. We'll discuss further during the dog days of summer.)

Spring Prediction: Allen wins the role as Brian Kelly's lead runner.

Time Flies – Robert Hughes

It's hard to believe the hard-charging back that burst on the scene late in 2007 is now a senior, still struggling to earn a consistent role in the Irish offense.

Though his numbers accumulated in spurts, Hughes finished second on the squad in rushing yards (416) and carries (88) while pacing the team for the second straight season in rushing scores (5) and posting a 4.7 ypc. average. The 5'11" 235-pound runner also posted the longest run from scrimmage of the season, a 37-yard burst vs. Washington. (Hughes also posted two of the three longest receptions among Irish running backs: a 30-yarder vs. Navy and 25-yard middle screen vs. the Huskies.)

We Have Questions: Why is the 5'11" 203-pound Allen a relative equal of Hughes as an insider runner? Why can't Hughes bottle the effort and grit he showed in back-to-back contests vs. Purdue and Washington and run with that fury on a consistent basis? Can Hughes, who put forth his four best efforts (PU, UW, WSU, Stanford) when Allen was injured/withheld from action, co-exist or thrive in a supporting role?

Hope Springs Eternal: 1, 0, 15, 8, 6, 4, 24, 7, 0, 4, 13…those are Hughes' carries per contest following the season-opener (for which he was suspended in the first half). It's difficult for a big back to get into a rhythm without touches and more importantly, without a defined role. Hughes has a fresh start and the opportunity to go out on a high note.

Spring Prediction: Hughes will fill a greater role in the fall when the bullets go live than his post-spring standing suggests. In other words, look for a depth-chart shake-up in April and bounce-back effort from the senior in September.

The Fan Favorite – Theo Riddick You can see it coming: Theo Riddick will end the ridiculous *six-year streak of big play ineptitude at the position with one knee-buckling cut, splitting a linebacker and hard charging safety in the season-opener, and big play touchdown run will finally result.

Riddick showed flashes when given the opportunity last season:

  • 9 carries for 51 yards vs. Washington State
  • 5 carries for 35 yards vs. Navy
  • 6 carries for 35 yards (despite an early fumble) in his first career start at Stanford

But we've sung this refrain before (see: Hughes, Robert, November 2007). Riddick needs to prove it on the field before we anoint him the next Ricky Watters.

We Have Questions: Will Riddick retain the team's kick return role or relinquish the duties after a sub par effort as a freshman? Will Riddick continue to jump (and therefore not live to tell tales) every time a defender goes for his ankles on the edge? Is Riddick capable of consistent blitz pickup and if so, does this make him the odds-on choice to win the lead role at some point next season? Could he serve as the slot receiver in certain situations next fall?

3/23 Update: Riddick has officially moved to slot receiver where he'll compete for a starting job in the team's 3-WR sets.

*(No Irish running back exceeded 39 yards on a carry from scrimmage during the Weis era, nor did a back carry the ball for more than 40 yards on a single play in 2004.)

Speaking of Fresh Starts – Jonas Gray

A key 2nd half fumble in enemy territory at Michigan. A blown blocking assignment in Week Three vs. Michigan State that changed Jimmy Clausen's mobility level for the ensuing months (and counting).

Both occurrences are noted when wondering why Gray disappeared from the Irish attack last season. But the sophomore started at Purdue (catching two screen passes for 42 yards); he was deemed worthy of a carry vs. Boston College in late November (Riddick, who served as the team's second-string back the following week, was not).

Hope Springs Eternal: Perhaps it was his fumble in the blowout of Washington State that sealed his fate, regardless, Jonas Gray never saw the field in November. Speculation aside, Gray enters the spring as a capable back with a better speed/power combination than any other runner on the roster.

We Have Questions: Can Gray recapture the form he showed in the season-opener vs. Nevada or the patience and burst he showed in the screen game at Purdue? Will he thrive without a fullback in front of him? Exactly how full was the Weis Doghouse in November, and was Gray the landlord of said domicile?

Spring Prediction: I'm not Nostradamus. Talk to me in April.

The word you're looking for: Loquacious – Cierre Wood

I'll give him this: the kid is funny…a great interview. Wood is brimming with self confidence and was singled out by Gray as the ‘back to watch in August due to his "patience as a runner" and "vision in the hole."

Wood was wisely redshirted last season, and by "wisely" I mean "If Wood was worth one win: 7-5 and a return to Hawaii in December is the same as 6-6…only this way there's hope in 2010."

Hope Springs Eternal: A common theme emerged in our brief meeting with Coach Kelly's assistants in January: "Make us notice you." That shouldn't be a problem with Wood.

We Have Questions: Can Wood work his way into a second or third-string role by the end of April? Will he switch to defensive back? Will that move be considered before, during, or after spring ball? If Wood becomes a feature ‘back in the future, will there be a Notre Dame website dedicated to his press conferences?

Spring Prediction: Wood will standout in the spring game…a relatively meaningless accomplishment over the years. If Wood is one day destined to be special, he'll beat out two of Notre Dame's five returning backs by the start of the season.

Summer Arrival – Jim Brown, err, Cameron Roberson

This just in: Brian Kelly is high on incoming freshman running back Cameron Roberson. The Irish head man used words such as "outstanding" (three times); "great" and "sigh of relief" to describe the 2010 recruiting class's only running back addition.

Since Kelly knows 100 percent more about Roberson than I do, I'll take his word for it until I see Roberson perform in live action (at which point Kelly will only know 99 percent more than me…but I'm taking my cue from Cierre Wood and showing confidence in my abilities).

Hope Springs Eternal: Roberson is 6'1" 220 pounds and Signing Day Love-Fest aside, did show impressive vision and the ability to make defenders miss without wasted running motion (my ideal trait for a collegiate runner is the ability to make defenders miss in a confined space with an economy of movement, examples of such are former Irish runner Lee Becton and Florida State tailback Amp Lee).

We Have Questions: Actually, that's all we have at this point…can Roberson get into the crowded backfield mix with an impressive fall camp? That, more than any high school stat or film clip, will tell us a great deal about his immediate-future prospects. Can he make an impact on the staff prior to September 1?

Summer Camp Prediction: Manti Te'o will present a greater obstacle than did the dudes from Ventura County…

Fullback Steve Paskorz will be included in the Coverage Units preview, tentatively scheduled for March 1.

Note: The film reviews and season previews of each player that appeared daily from May through the end of July last season will again be featured in the summer months.


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