(UHND.com) – When Darius Walker announced he was going to enter the NFL Draft a year early last week, he created another hole for Charlie Weis to fill in next year’s offense. Including the loss of Walker, Weis will have to replace at least seven starters and will have a pool of candidates at running back who have combined to rush for a total of 514 yards in their careers. Despite this relative lack of production, the Irish will have plenty of talent on the roster to off-set the loss of Walker.
Should Travis Thomas return to the offensive side of the ball as has been widely speculated this off-season, Thomas will probably get the first look at replacing Walker. Thomas had a slow start to his career, but after his disastrous game against BYU in his first career start, he rebounded nicely last year under the guidance of Mike Haywood and Charlie Weis.
Before spending 2006 as a linebacker, Thomas ran the ball 63 times for 248 yards and scored five times as Walker’s primary backup in 2005 as a junior. Thomas was more of a straight ahead, pound it out kind of back in 2005, but also showed some nice moves near the goal line and looked like he had some potential.
A lack of depth and talent at the linebacker position this past year, however, caused Thomas to switch to the defensive side of the ball. Weis’s main reasoning for moving Thomas was that he considered him of the best 22 players on the team.
Thomas still carried the ball 13 times for 78 yards this year while reaching the end zone twice. Thomas also is credited with the longest run by a Notre Dame running back of the season for the Irish – a 43 yard scamper on a fake punt against Penn State. (Brady Quinn owns the longest rush of the year with his 60 yarder against USC).
The experiment worked out to a certain extent, but Thomas will likely end up on offense this Spring.
Joining Thomas in the mix will be sophomores to be James Aldridge and Munir Prince and incoming freshman Armando Allen who will be enrolling early for the Irish. Aldridge, slowed by injury this year, ended the year as the #2 running back on the Irish depth chart and was the most highly touted prospect of any back on the Notre Dame roster coming out of high school.
Notre Dame fans couldn’t wait to see Aldridge this past season and when we finally got a glimpse, we saw some promise. Aldridge saw very little meaningful action, receiving most of his carries during some meaningless mop up duty, but he still managed to run for 142 yards on 37 carries.
Slowed by a knee injury early in the season, when Aldridge ran, he looked to run through defenders instead of around them. Watch any of Aldridge’s highlight reels from his high school days and you’ll see a running back that had the ability to change direction and not lose any speed in the process. We didn’t see that much last year, most likely because he was coming off the knee injury and was still regaining confidence in his ability to cut on it.
Aldridge’s classmate, Munir Prince, might have the most pure speed of any of the running backs on the Irish roster. He was given #25 last year and was described to have “whoosh” type speed by Weis. Prince saw some carries early, but it was clear he wasn’t quite ready physically to handle a lot of carries. Prince is a fairly small back at 5’10”, 175 and struggled at times, usually going down on first contact.
Still, Prince’s pure speed will have him in the mix at running back and could end up being used in a Rocket Ismail kind of way. He might not have the size to be a strong between the tackles runner, but like Ismail, he could be deadly if he gets to the outside or in open space.
The real x-factor will be Armando Allen. Allen is one of three early enrollment prospects this year and is currently on campus. He suffered a broken ankle early in his senior year and missed his entire final season, but prior to being injured Allen created a jaw dropping highlight reel as a junior.
With a tremendous combination of speed, vision, and balance, Allen has all the tools to be a game breaker for the Irish. How will his injury, however, impact his ability to challenge for carries as a freshman?
Regardless of who ends up as the starter for the Irish when Georgia Tech comes to town in September, it’s clear that the Irish have more than enough talent to off-set the loss of Walker.
Whoever starts will have a hard time replicating Walker’s blocking and pass catching abilities, but with the mix of talent the Irish have Charlie Weis shouldn’t have a problem figuring out ways to put these players in a position to make plays.
Thomas and Aldridge have to be the odds on favorites to win the starting job for the simple fact that both have the size needed to handle being an every down back. Charlie Weis has said repeatedly he doesn’t like a running back by committee approach so whoever winds up as the #1 back will have to be able to handle carry the ball a lot.
Over the past two seasons Darius Walker carried the ball 508 times. Running backs not named Darius Walker combined for 217 times (including carries by fullbacks). Furthermore, Walker has had more than at least four times more carries than Notre Dame’s second leading rusher in each of the past two seasons.
Thomas was considered by many to be a better north-south runner than Walker who at times waited too long in the backfield before hitting a hole, but will have a tough time fighting off Aldridge if Aldridge can return to the form we saw in his high school highlights.
Aldridge has the raw talent to be able to become the next great back at Notre Dame. He has the size, the speed, and the power to be a great running back for the Irish, but after suffering a partial ACL tear in high school and then being slowed this year by injuries again, durability is a concern.
It will be an interesting battle that I expect will run into fall camp and while Walker takes 508 carries and 2,463 yards from just the last two years with him to the NFL, the talent is definitely there for the Irish to be just fine at running back next fall.