Thursday, August 14, 2008

2008 Notre Dame Football Preview: Running Backs

Running Backs

Running back should be a huge strength for the team this year.

Of course running back SHOULD have been a huge strength for the team last year.

But we finished 115th in the country in rushing offense, averaging a paltry 75.25 yards per game.

The same three headed monster returns from last year, with an infusion of young talent pushing them from behind. All of the returning starters have increased their bench by a whopping 100 pounds. Hughes and Allen are no longer freshmen, and Aldridge is allegedly healthy for the first time since his junior year of high school.

But we need to see improved offensive line play for any of this talent to result in an improved running game. We'll cover that at length when we get to the O-line preview.

Robert Hughes Sophomore, 5'11" 237 lbs. Returning Starter
2007 Stats (1 game started):
Rushing: 53 rushes, 294 yards 5.5 avg 4 TD
Receiving: 3 receptions, 17 yards, 5.7 average 0 TD

Hughes only started one game last year, but his performance in the final two games of the season earned him top honors on my preview list.

Hughes is an extremely agile big back, who has good vision and excellent change of direction. He's also got a surprising burst. He lacks top end speed, but has enough giddy up to gain 20 yards before the defensive backs can catch him.

Hughes is excellent at running through contact, with a good pad level that makes him difficult to take down at the point of attack.

He was the first freshman since Allen Pinkett to rush for over 100 yards in consecutive games.

Hughes is the favorite to win the starting position going into San Diego State, but Aldridge's development and return to health make this battle the most exciting of fall camp, as Coach Weis has refused to name a starter coming out of spring.

James Aldridge Junior, 6'0" 225 lbs. Returning Starter
2007 Stats (5 games started):
Rushing: 121 rushes, 463 yards, 3.8 avg 0 TD
Receiving: 5 receptions, 30 yards, 6.0 avg, 0 TD

Aldridge was a 5-star recruit out of high school, but suffered an injury in his senior season of high school. That injury lingered through his freshman and sophomore seasons, but his athleticism and natural ability got him on the field as a freshman behind Darius Walker and the starting nod last year for most of the season.

Aldridge has been a passable running back thus far, but has not shown break away ablity or a nose for the end zone. Watching him on tape, there is not much mechanically wrong with his technique, it just appears that he is incapable of making the sudden cuts and quick bursts that made him such a highly touted recruit.

Weis is claiming that Aldridge is 100% healthy for the first time since he's been at Notre Dame, which means that this year could be the breakout season for Aldridge.

Also, most players come into their own their junior year. Freshman year is about learning the playbook. Sophomore year is about learning how to play. Junior year is when you stop thinking and start playing instinctively. If Aldridge can make that mental leap and return to top physical form, there is no doubt on my mind that he will be the feature back on this team.

However, I have not seen it from Aldridge in a game yet, and Hughes looked better even as recently as the spring game. Until I see something from Aldridge on the field, I'm giving the edge to Hughes in this battle.

Armando Allen Sophomore, 5'10" 195 lbs.
2007 Stats (4 games started):
Rushing: 86 rushes 348 yards 4.0 avg 0 TD
Receiving: 24 receptions, 124 yards, 5.2 avg, 1 TD

All last year, Weis was verbally drooling over Armando's speed. From the beginning of spring ball through the entire 2007 season, he wouldn't shut up about Allen's giddy up.

And it is true that this kid can flat out run.

But that doesn't necessarily translate into football speed. Too many times last year, Armando missed the cut back lane, went down at first contact, and lacked the vision to find daylight. Not one time last year did Armando find his way into the open field to show that blazing speed.

Weis has talked this offseason about how the game has slowed down for Armando, but I have yet to see any evidence of this on the field. He is running with more confidence, and not going down as easily, but he is not going to be an every down back like Aldridge and Hughes. He is the change of pace back, the home run hitter.

And I haven't seen hm hit any home runs.

Whether it be on game tape, in the spring game, or in practice videos, Allen just can't seem to find that crease to get into the open field. And until he does, I'm just not a big fan of giving him substantial carries. In fact, there are two backs behind him that I might push ahead based upon their practice performances.

Barry Gallup, Jr. Junior, 5'11" 195 lbs.
2007 Stats (0 games started):
5 special teams appearances

Recruited as a wide receiver, Gallup never developed into a good enough route runner to crack the starting lineup. However, he spent most of his high school career at running back, so the coaches agreed to give him a shot at tailback.

Gallup has excellent speed, and from what I've seen in practice, is a very instinctual runner. He isn't the most polished runner as far as technique during drills, but when he's put in game situations, he produces. He had some amazing runs on the 11-on-11 drills (albeit against 2nd and 3rd team defense for the most part).

Gallup appears to me to be one of those players (like Golden Tate) that have that "Forrest Gump" effect. You put the ball in their hands and say "Run, Forrest!" and special things happen.

Jonas Gray Freshman, 5'10" 195 lbs.
2007 Stats (Detroit Country Day School):
Rushing: 308 rushes 2,485 yards 8.1 avg 31 TD
Receiving: 2 receptions, 52 yards, 1 TD

After putting up some gaudy numbers as a senior in high school, recruitniks have been hgh on Gray for a while now. Many, like myself, saw him coming in, learning the playbook, and sitting behind the three-headed monster for a year before entering the rotation.

After watching him in practice, however, he looks like he could be ready to challenge right away, and might be able to even push ahead of some of the returning starters.

He is in amazing physical condition, and actually looks MORE cut than the starting backs.

In drills, he looks very good, running with technique and precision, although his unfamiliarity with the drills is apparent sometimes.

In game situations (11-on-11), Gray looks like the flashiest back on the field, running hard, not going down on first contact and showing exceptional vision to identify the cut back lanes. He has excellent change of direction, good burst, and impressive top end speed.

In short, Gray is the all-around back that I had hoped Aldridge would be when we recruited him.


With all of the depth at running back, we should have a very good season running the ball if we can improve our run blocking.

And with Cierre Wood showing up next year, our running back depth chart is starting to look like the depth chart over at USC.

Unfortunately, there will probably be a transfer or two in the next couple of years as the depth chart starts to shake out. These players are too good for them to be willing to ride the pine for an extended period of time.

With the unknowns at receiver, and the need to build the confidence of the offensive line, I expect to see a very run-heavy game plan to start the season, using our depth at running back to wear down defenses.

If I were Coach Weis (and Haywood), I would be more than comfortable playing all 5 of these players in a variety of situations. The multitude of personnel packages that a defense would have to account for is astounding, and would allow Haywood to disguise his playcalling.

Hell, I wouldn't even be surprised to see a wishbone formation thrown in just to confuse defenses.

UP NEXT: Tight Ends and Fullbacks


Anonymous said...

What about Golden Tate as the "homerun" hitter? (no pun intended for his baseball acumen). He was a back in HS and seems to have great speed but might get relegated as a WR behind some of the freshmen.

Wacko said...

I'd like to see more of Tate getting his hands on the ball, whether in the passing game or rushing game.

I'm surprised to see Armando Allen still listed as the PR/KR, as I thought that Tate might beat him out with his more instinctive running ability.

valpodoc said...

Nice summary. I hope all these guys see open field this year. Go Irish!

monster said...

i wouldnt exactly say that Golden Tate has "instinctive running ability". I know he's got some speed and quickness, but personally i do not see him at running back. I think he's got more raw talent and speed than technique, which would explain why he really only showed flashes of potential on those "fly" routes last year. Other than that, we really never heard much more out of him. I do agree, however, that getting the ball in his hands this season is going to produce some yardage, that is if he has matured. I dont see any reason he can't be utilized at receiver/slot/h-back often this year and be productive.