From the conclusion of spring through fall camp, head coach Brian Kelly has listed running back depth and the group's collective ability as a team strength.
Can running backs coach Tim Hinton find a way to keep each of the four involved?
"It's funny, I've had a lot of these seasons recently and I do find it unusual," Hinton said of running back competitions that stretch beyond a distinguished pair of runners. "Had we not had an injury I'd have had three (‘backs) last year. In my first couple years with Mark Dantonio's staff (in Cincinnati), we had three ‘backs those years, too. So we've learned to play them all."
Some situations will call for multiple running backs in Kelly's offense – especially near the goal line – but the standard set will employ one ‘back offset from quarterback Dayne Crist in a shotgun formation.
"I think the greatest thing about what's happening in our room (RB meetings) is they're all selfless," Hinton noted. "They go out and those son-of-a-guns truly believe in each other. Sure, they want to be successful (individually), but they're willing to put that behind and understand that our team success is first and my group's done a great job of that – a great job.
"(Monday), one of our ‘backs broke off a 70-yard run. Well the other three were as excited as he was. We're looking at each other to be successful."
Best Man InSenior Armando Allen stresses that the runners as a whole don't see starter or second unit designations.
"I think as a unit we look at it differently. We look at it as competition, but we're one. No matter who's in the game at a certain point and time, we all have expectations that we have to live up to as a unit," Allen said.
"We go into practice with the same mindset that we all have to get better. If I do something wrong I'm expecting everybody when I get to the sidelines to tell me: you could have done this better and it's vice versa. It's made us gel as a unit."
Fans can again expect to see Allen's name announced as an official starter on September 4. If true, that decision will be merit-based, as will nearly every carry earned by the quartet over the season slate.
Junior running back Jonas Gray has also embraced the new staff's approach.
"You have to play mistake-free. Your reps will increase as you continue to progress and do the right things," Gray said. "One day you'll start out with (for example) four reps – if you do all those right, your reps will increase; if you don't do them the right way, then they'll decrease.
"That's Coach Kelly's coaching style. He'll put the best players on the field, no matter who it is. If you do the right things, he'll put you out there."
Gray received praise from his head coach following Friday afternoon's scrimmage between second unit players. He's not the first player to be singled out and he won't be the last…but for a running back still finding his way in the college game, it serves as a confidence boost nonetheless.
"It is gratifying," Gray said of the post-practice mention. "I came out of camp last year and I was the number two ‘back. But I really didn't do all the things I needed to do to be in position to make big plays on the field (going forward).
"I feel like this season, I'm learning a lot from all the running backs and I learned a lot from last year. I'm trying to take all the things I learned from these two camps – last year's camp and this year's camp – and just do some good things."
Not Just a Niche?Battling through his fourth August camp is senior combo-back Robert Hughes. Hughes has run for more than twice as many touchdowns (13) as his trio of competitors combined. Though he's fighting for more than a niche role, the senior from Chicago is again ready to accept the challenge as the team's chief goal line threat.
"You have to have the will to do it," Hughes said of a goal line runner's secondary trait (behind toughness). "And you have to know your assignment (gap). That's what I focus on. Really it's just wanting to do it to the best of your ability. The goal line is about wanting to do well for your teammates."
After a poor start to his career as a short-yardage rusher, Hughes improved tremendously in '09, converting 6 of 9 carries inside the opponents' 3-yard line into scores last season (including a crucial two-point conversion vs. Washington).
While most fans consider Hughes chiefly a between-the-tackles threat, it's relevant to note that the senior has also recorded four of the five longest plays from scrimmage by an Irish running back over the last three seasons (graduated James Aldridge had the fifth). In each long-gain situation, Hughes touched the ball on more than 12 occasions over the course of the contest.
"It feels great when you know you're in there and you're getting the ball," Hughes admitted. "It definitely helps when you get multiple carries because you get comfortable with the game. It's hard to get comfortable with yourself when you come in and out of the lineup."
Nonetheless, it's an occurrence he's prepared for.
"As a running back, you have to be ready for every opportunity," he added.
Just Please Stop Referring to it as the Lepre-CatIn his second formal session with the media this month, Brian Kelly was asked if college football's 2009 formation du jour – The Wildcat – would make an appearance in his spread offense.
"I think it's a natural progression, actually. It's a lot smoother in its form because we have those schemes already in the spring," Kelly said of employing the Wildcat from his shotgun spread offense. "You can't block everybody in the spread if they put six guys at the line of scrimmage when you've got five.
"Last year I had a big tight end (Travis Kelce) at Cincinnati (receiving the direct snap)," Kelly offered. "I kind of like the big, physical guy in there. So we're going to look at 2-3 guys: Armando Allen, who had some experience in getting the ball snapped from the center last year. We're going to look at Theo Riddick; and we're going to look at Kyle Rudolph.
"I think there are some guys out there that we're going to kind of get a feel for. And as we get closer to some of the base installation being in; we can get to some of those things now."
All in the FamilyThe Irish offense will employ a frenetic, no huddle pace this fall. The result? Fresh legs will be at a premium – on both sides of scrimmage.
"That's the beauty of having depth," Hinton explained. "The thing that makes it real tough (for the defense) is you have the ability to have fresh people on the field. Guys that touch the ball that are fresh – at that position – ‘whoo boy', when that ‘backer gets tired or that secondary guy gets tired – it's just one more opportunity to miss a tackle; take a bad pursuit angle…all those things can happen."
Hoping to take advantage of a bad pursuit angle or two is redshirt-freshman tailback Cierre Wood. The confident first-year competitor dropped roughly 12 pounds since last season and should serve as a key Committee Member this season.
"We have a bunch of us that compete every day. We help each other out and make sure we run the right routes; have the right protection and stuff like that. We can't go against each other or have the mindset that ‘If he messes up, then I'll get to play more.'
"We can't have that if our goal is to win a National Championship. If someone messes up, we have to be the first one's to help instead of Coach Hinton, that's what we have to build on."
"You play the sport so you want the ball. Every time I get it, my main goal is to try to score; whether it's a kickoff return or (elsewhere) my main goal is to try to score."
Wood's goal coincides with that of the offense's objective…on every snap.
"Why would you call plays that weren't designed to score touchdowns?" asked Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. "Every play we call, we're trying to score touchdowns. Now there might be a few plays, there might be 3rd and short and we're trying to get a first down, but otherwise, we're trying to put it in the end zone."
While each member of the quartet will see time – whether intermittent or consistent – Hinton acknowledges there's one element of the sport that will determine carries on a given Saturday –regardless of the unit's depth.
"Oh there's no doubt about that," Hinton said of sticking with a hot (successful) ‘back even if that runner wasn't prominently featured entering the contest. "This guy may get 15, 20 more reps than normal because that day, he's on fire, and its all working for him. That doesn't mean the other guy's done anything wrong, that's just his day."
Expect each Committee Member to continue to compete in an effort to make a particular Saturday his own this fall.