The running back position at Notre Dame has, in two short years, gone from basically a one-man band to as deep a stable of talented running backs as anywhere else in the country (excepting of course USC, where they have recruited running backs like we've recruited tight ends). Thomas is going to be the workhorse that makes this engine run, but he won't have to work himself to death, as we have three talented backs stuck in a logjam right behind him, each with a distinctive running style that will make it difficult for opposing coaches to gameplan us.
Unlike the last couple of years, we will have a power inside running game this year, so much so that we may actually become a run-first offense.
Running Back (Halfback)
Travis Thomas, Senior
Balance. Travis Thomas is one of those players that is just gifted with lots of natural athletic ability. He is also smart and disciplined. As a result, he's the only player I can recall that was able to pull of such a drastic position switch as the transition from starting running back to starting linebacker. And then back again. All while serving as special teams captain.
Thomas' rocky start as a running back three years ago has been long forgotten, and he provides a much more balanced running style than we got from Darius Walker. Darius was spectacular at outside zone running (i.e. stretch plays) and catching balls out of the backfield. However, Darius never was able to become proficient at the inside zone running - too much hesitation. This narrowed our play selection considerably last year.
Thomas, on the other hand, is a classic all-purpose back, the Swiss Army knife of the backfield. He may not be as good as Darius at the outside zone, but he is as good at inside zone runs as he is at outside. He may not have the soft hands of Darius, but he is a good receiver out of the backfield. He is excellent at reading defenses and picking up blitzes as well. And he opens up the playbook.
Although Thomas may not be the next great running back in history, he is the perfect backbone of this unit, being the workhorse that can do it all.
Asaph Schwapp, Junior
The one word that comes to my mind with Asaph is power. This kid is a like a pile of bricks when he hits you. He's not a great runner, but as a lead blocker he is second to none. He abuses linebackers all day long. His skills were underutilized with Darius, but now that we can line up our running backs and pound the ball inside, Schwapp's value as a lead blocker increases.
The best compliment I've heard Coach Wes ever give a player was to Schwapp, when he pointed out that the players opposite Schwapp during practices hate being hit by him. During practice.
Running Back (Halfback)
These three backups are listed together on the depth chart after TT, and each player will see considerable carries this year, taking advantage of each player's individual strengths while keeping Thomas fresh.
James Aldridge, Sophomore
Power. Aldridge, to me, seems to be a bit of a throwback player - he reminds me most of Emmitt Smith and Thurman Thomas. A power back with enough moves and speed to hurt you if you don't put enough guys in the box to stop him before he gets a head of steam going. He's not pure power, though (for that, see Robert Hughes below). He's got great hip and foot movement and can make you miss as well. For my money, Aldridge is the prototypical running back for a traditional balanced offense.
Armando Allen, Freshman
Speed. Allen is the closest Notre Dame has ever had to a Reggie Bush like player at running back. This kid is so fast, he's one of our starting kick returners. He's got good hands, and will be a scat-back type of player in the mold of the aforementioned Bush and Marshall Faulk. Because Weis, given the choice, would not run the traditional balanced offense that would utilize Aldrdge so well, Allen is the star of the future in Weis' pass-heavy offense. Can line up and get you those inside yards, but also split out and burn his defender on passing plays, his speed creating coverage mismatches.
Junior Jabbie, Senior
Dependable. Jabbie came to the Irish as a defensive back out of prep school, so he's got some speed. However, his position switch from DB to running back wasn't completely unexpected. Fredo, for example, recruited Jabbie as a running back.
Junior hasn't done much of yet with his football career, spending most of his time toiling away in special teams. However, this year he finally got focused and hit the gym pretty hard, putting on some muscle to go with his speed. Now he's got speed and power, which allow him to make up for the fact that he doesn't have that natural running ability of players like Armando Allen and Golden Tate. However, the upside to the lack of "moves" is a straightforward running style that gains a lot of yards very quickly when there is a hole. His increased power allows him to shed some tacklers, which makes him a very dependable "3 yards and a cloud of dust" runner with the speed to take it to the house if he gets into the secondary. He needs to work a little on his vision.
Luke Schmidt, Sophomore
It's a little difficult to talk too much about Luke Schmidt, as he has toiled away in Schwapp's shadow for most of his career thus far. Combine that with the lack of open practices this year, and it's difficult to get a read on exactly what kind of player Luke is.
However, from what I have been able to dig up, Schmidt is the yin to Schwapp's yang, so to speak. Where Schwapp is a blocker first who struggles with running the ball, Schmidt is a run-first type of fullback, who struggles sometimes with his blocking ability. Schmidt was in many ways Robert Hughes last year, the halfback with the size to play fullback. His full time position switch to fullback only has allowed him to bulk up, and he needs to get lots of reps this year as a blocking back.
If he can develop his blocking game, he could be a great weapon to have in the backfield, able to pound out yards in those short yardage situations where we have come to rely on the QB sneak. Also, his running ability opens up an element of surprise in the running game, gving us the ability to use our fullback in much the same way that Navy does in their option offense, adding another thing for the defense to worry about before the snap.
Robert Hughes, Freshman
Although Coach Weis could have left the depth chart alone after plugging in four backs as above, he chose to put Robert Hughes on the depth chart as well - at halfback. I'm guessing the reason for this is the unique set of tools Hughes brings to the table. Weis has talked all year long about position flexibility among the linemen and defensive positions. With Hughes, he has a player that can line up at either halfback or fullback. This flexiblity can give Coach Weis some interesting options - he can bring in Hughes and Allen in a traditional Power I formation, then shift them into a 4-wide, single back set with the same personnel and not lose any options as far as playcalling is concerned. Think of Hughes as the next Jerome Bettis.
Walk-ons: Dex Cure, FB; Nikolas Rodriguez, HB; Mike Narvaez, FB