Spring Position Battle Spotlight – Running Back

Notre Dame, IN (UHND) – There are a number of positions up for grabs this spring. Some will be decided by this month’s Blue and Gold game and will likely go undecided until the end of August. Over the next couple of weeks we’ll take a look at a number of the spots that will be up for grabs – first up is the starting running back position.

When Darius Walker left before his senior season last year, Notre Dame went into the 2007 season with very little experience at the running back position. Travis Thomas and James Aldridge were the primary participants in last year’s battle for the position with freshmen Armando Allen and Robert Hughes fighting for carries as well.

None of the four backs who saw the bulk of carries in ’07 established themselves as the set in stone starter. Thomas is graduated and none of the returning backs started more than five games or ran for more than 500 yards last season.

James Aldridge has been listed as the #1 back on the official depth chart to start the spring, but Hughes and all are right on his heels and either one of them would makes sense for one reason or another as the starter.

Here’s a quick rundown of what each has accomplished and what each brings to the table in 2008.

James Aldridge

The former five star running back came to Notre Dame as an early enrollee, one of the original three for Weis, but also came after an ACL injury during his senior year of high school. Before the injury, Aldridge showed some impressive cutting ability. He rarely lost much speed on his cuts and while he didn’t posses “burner” speed, he broke long run after long run by making people miss.

While he’s been at Notre Dame, that same ability has yet to be really seen. As a freshman, he wore a bulky knee brace that limited his mobility; and last year he still didn’t look like the same back that garnered five stars from both Rivals and Scout.com.

Aldridge ended last season with 121 carries for 463 yards (3.8 ypc) with zero touchdowns in five starts. He looked good at times such as against Michigan State when he recorded his first career 100 yard game with 104 on 18 carries. He notched another 100 yard performance against Navy with a career high 125 on 32 carries.

James missed all of the USC and Stanford games as well as most of the Duke game with an ankle injury.

Aldridge’s biggest weakness in 2007 was breaking tackles, or rather his lack of breaking tackles. For a big back, he didn’t run through too many arm tackles and went down on first contact more than you would expect from a back with his size.

The lack of taking backs to the ground in practice for most of last year could have played a role in this. Considering Aldridge missed most of his senior year of high school and then played sparingly in 2006, it had been three years since Aldridge had been tackled on a regular basis. That won’t be the case this spring with everyone getting taken to the ground except the quarterback and that should improve his tackle breaking skills.

Aldridge will have a heck of a battle with Hughes and Allen to hold onto his starting spot, but I think he will end spring as the #1 back and likely head into the season as the starter. With Hughes and Allen right behind him, though, he will have to produce early in order to hold onto that spot.

Robert Hughes

Hughes came to Notre Dame after an intense recruiting battle with Illinois last year and made an immediate impact. By week four, Hughes saw his first career carries when he got 6 for 33 yards and a touchdown against Michigan State. The touchdown run was particularly impressive – not because it was a highlight reel run, but rather, he simply pushed a pile of defenders unlike any Notre Dame back has done for some time.

Hughes also showed some excellent footwork in finding a hole and making a defender miss. For a big back, he is surprisingly agile and broke a couple long runs throughout the season. He busted a 33 yard run against Duke and took the opening carry of the Stanford game 45 yards during an impressive two game stretch in which he started in place of the injured James Aldridge.

Against Duke and Stanford, Hughes carried the ball 35 times for 246 yards (7.0 ypc) and scored twice. Granted these performances came against two of the weakest teams on Notre Dame’s schedule in 2007, but his average of 7 yards a carry is impressive none the less.

For the season, Hughes totaled 294 yards on 53 carries (5.5 ypc) and led Notre Dame in rushing touchdowns with four. His average yards per carry was 1.7 yards higher than Aldridge and his four scores were four more than Aldridge’s zilch.

While not on display much last year (3 receptions for 17 yards), Weis has praised the hands of Hughes time and time again. Notre Dame’s inability to set up any semblance of a respectable screen pass last year limited the number of times Weis called them which could be why we didn’t see Hughes catch the ball much out of the backfield over the last two weeks.

At the very least, Hughes should be the goal line back because of his ability to move a pile. No other back on the Irish roster right now has that kind of ability. He is also the prototypical workhorse type back and will be right on Aldridge’s heels through spring and fall camps and into the season. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if he surpassed Aldridge on the depth chart at anytime between now the start of the season, but still think Weis will go with Aldridge off the bat.

Armando Allen

The X-factor in the running back race is Armando Allen. While Aldridge is a good all around back and Hughes is an absolute beast with good footwork, Allen is the only back on the Irish roster who is a real breakaway threat – even if that wasn’t on display much during his freshman campaign in ’07.

Allen enrolled early last year and like Aldridge, came to Notre Dame after missing most of his senior season due to injury. Allen broke his leg as a senior year of high school. Like Aldridge, he also didn’t look like the back we saw in the video from his junior season.

What slowed Allen down the most was getting tripped up by arm tackles and not being able to break big runs when it appeared like he was just about to. A full year in the Notre Dame weight room and another round of spring and fall practices should help Allen build up the strength in his leg needed to turn some of those 6 or 7 yards runners into 20 and 30 or longer yarders.
During the ’07 season, Allen’s longest run was just 15 yards, but that should change in a hurry this season for a couple reasons.

First off, Allen isn’t the kind of back who is going to break a lot of runs without some decent blocking up front. Once he is in the open field, he’s got the speed and moves to be a game-breaking back, but he needs to get in the open field in the first place. Unfortunately, Notre Dame’s offensive line didn’t open up a lot of holes for any of the Irish backs last year. Improved offense line play this year should immediately help Allen’s game.

Secondly, having more physical practices should help him as much as Aldridge. Like Aldridge, Allen didn’t get tackled much since his junior year of high school before last season. Working in the weight room with Reuben Mendoza to build up his legs and facing more tackling in practice day to day will lead to longer runs in ’08.

Allen should be a change of pace back at least and could play to the role of the third down back because of his speed and potential as a receiver out of the backfield. He’ll also be a primary fixture as kick returner and will be one of the leading candidates to replace Tom Zbikowski as the primary punt returner.

Analysis

It has been a long time since Notre Dame has had the kind of talent they have in the backfield as they do this year. All three of these backs could start for a lot of schools and all three bring a different skill set to the table.

Weis has said a number of times that he is not a fan of running back by committee, but there might not be any way around at least some sort of committee for the Irish in 2008. Aldridge will likely start the season as the starter and get every chance to keep that role, but because of the presence of Hughes and Allen, he won’t have much room for error and there is no guarantee he will end the season as the starter.

If I was a betting man, I would bet that #33 will be the starting running back on November 29th when Notre Dame travels to Los Angeles to face USC.

All three will see their fair share of carries this year and if the offensive line improves (and really how could it not?), Notre Dame should have a very potent running game this season.

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