For the first time since the Holtz Era, Notre Dame will enter a season with a stable of running backs full of depth, talent, and complementary skills. Over the past decade or so, Notre Dame has entered most seasons with established starters and/or little dept. In 2008, however, the Irish head into the season with a talent returning trio in junior James Aldridge and sophomores Robert Hughes and Armando Allen. Throw into the mix talented incoming freshman Jonas Gray and you have the recipe for a potent running attack.
After the surprise decision of Darius Walker to enter the NFL draft in January of 2007, Notre Dame entered last season with a lot of question marks at the running back position and it showed, especially early on. Four backs ended up splitting the carries last year which none really establishing themselves as the clear cut starter. Last year’s uncertainty, however, ended up building some much needed depth at the position and has set the stage for an interesting battle for the starting spot this fall.
Junior James Aldridge was the most highly touted running back recruited by Weis prior to this spring’s commitment of Cierre Wood, but he still seems to have not fully recovered from his knee injury during his senior year of high school. Up until this point, he has not shown the same change of direction ability that he displayed in high school. He’s been more of a “slasher” type running back.
Still, he lead Notre Dame is rushing last season with 463 yards on 121 carries (3.8 ypc) despite not reaching the end zone. Aldridge also posted his first two career 100 yard rushing games against Michigan State (104) and Navy (125). He got banged up in the Duke game, however, and ended up sitting out the Stanford game which opened up the door for Robert Hughes. Aldridge only totted the rock 6 times for 18 yards in the Blue-Gold game last April. Part of the reason for that could be because of Aldridge’s past injuries, but the fact that he got the fewest carries among the returning backs could mean he will have an uphill battle this fall camp.
Hughes, a true freshman in 2007, didn’t see any action until the fourth game of the season against Michigan State, but once he got on the field, he didn’t disappoint. Against the Spartans, Hughes carried 6 times for 32 yards and had a pile moving touchdown run. After that performance, though, he didn’t see much action until Aldridge went out against Duke. In Aldridge’s absence, Hughes tallied 110 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown.
Hughes won’t be winning any foot races, but he showed excellent footwork in finding his way through traffic as evidenced by his 5.5 ypc average in 2007. For the season, he totaled 294 yards on 53 carries and was second on the team with 4 rushing touchdowns – only fifth year senior Travis Thomas reached the end zone more than Hughes.
In April’s Blue-Gold game, Hughes’ talents were on full display with 100 yards on 22 carries and the lone rushing touchdown of the game. Weis gave Hughes the bulk of the carries in the game which could suggest that Weis has plans on making him his go to back. Notre Dame ran 43 running plays in the Blue-Gold game meaning Hughes got more carries than the rest of the Irish backs combined. For all of Hughes’ progress, Weis still sees room for improvement heading into the season. “I think the one thing we’ll have to work on is making sure he’s not running too high for me in this game,” Weis said after the Blue-Gold game. “I think when you’re 240 pounds, whatever, the higher you run, the more you’re giving the defense equalizers. You’re letting them get shots at you. I think you have to run with a little more forward leaning, get your pads down more. I think that’s what we’ll work on.”
The wildcard among the returning backs is sophomore Armando Allen. Of all of the Notre Dame backs currently on the roster, none posses the big play ability that Allen has. While it wasn’t on display during his freshman season as he rebounded from a broken leg his senior year of high school, Allen’s got breakaway speed and can turn a simple run into a big play if he gets in space.
Last season, Allen had a tough time breaking any tackles and went down on first contact more often than not. The strength in his legs just wasted there and arm tackles took him down. A full off-season working with Reuben Mendoza in the weight room should help that problem and he showed glimpses of improvement in this department during the Blue-Gold game. Allen gained 50 yards on 11 carries and ran with much more authority than we have previously seen him do.
The only returning running back on the Irish roster heading into the season is converted wide receiver Barry Gallup, Jr. Gallup spent his first two seasons in South Bend as a wide receiver, but made the move to running back in the spring. In the Blue-Gold game, Gallup ran four times for just one net yard gained and probably won’t factor into the mix at running back a whole lot this year. His experience at receiver could make him an option in some multiple back sets where he could get matched up against a linebacker and use his receiver skills to create a mismatch, but with the depth and talent ahead of him, it will be extremely difficult for him to see much time this fall.
Notre Dame only has one incoming freshman at running back this fall, albeit a very talented one. Jonas Gray has been described as looking like anything but a college freshman since arriving to Notre Dame. Physically, he will be ready to play this year if he can do enough in fall camp to earn some playing time. With the talent and depth ahead of him, getting playing time might be a bit difficult, but he certainly has the ability to play.
Along with Armando Allen, Gray possesses blazing speed for the position, but unlike Allen he is more of a slasher and might have more straight line speed. While he might be faster than Allen, though, he also doesn’t have Allen’s change of direction ability.
How It Will Play Out
Weis and offensive coordinator/running backs coach Mike Haywood will need to identify which back they want to be “the” guy at the position. Based on his comments following the Blue-Gold game, it’s clear that Weis has faith in all three at the moment. “I think all three of these running backs can play,” Weis said. “I don’t think there’s any question that you can put any of those three guys out there and you’d have a chance of winning in the game.”
Still, based on comments from Weis in the past, it seems likely that he won’t want a full fledged running back by committee and will be looking to find a go to back while still giving at least the other two some carries each week. Right now Aldridge and Hughes are better suited to be every down backs. Both are better suited than Allen to get the 15-20 carries a game that the starter will likely get. Aldridge was listed first on the depth chart through most of last year, but his absence at the end of the season allowed for Hughes to show what he can do – even if it was against some weaker competition.
If the Blue-Gold game is any indication, it looks as though Hughes will see the most carries this year. He’s built like a Mac Truck and is surprisingly light on his feet for such a big back. From the limited action he’s seen he’s shown the ability to be more than effective as an every down back assuming he has an offensive line creating some holes for him to run through, but that’s an entirely different issue all together.
As for Allen, I think we’ll see him on the field quite a bit because of his big play ability and seeing two back sets with he and Hughes or he and Aldridge shouldn’t be out of the question either. Weis could have both backs on the field at the same time and put Allen in motion to get him lined up against a linebacker in the open field where he can use his speed and agility to create mismatches in the passing game.
It looks as though we’ll see at least three backs playing fairly regularly this fall (four if Gray can impress in camp). Between Aldridge, Hughes, and Allen, Notre Dame has a great mix of talent in the backfield that should equate to a successful rushing attack this fall. If I were a betting man, I would put my money on Hughes to be the go to back with about 15-20 carries a game with Allen serving as a change of pace back and valuable weapon in the passing game and Aldridge providing Hughes breaks throughout the game to keep him fresh. However it plays though, one thing is abundantly clear. For the first time in years Notre Dame has a backfield full of talent and depth with the potential to provide a very potent ground attack – keyword, potential.