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Young running backs hope to make impact

Pat Leonard | Sunday, August 22, 2004

In the first week of fall practice, freshman running backs Darius Walker and Justin Hoskins received the opportunity to showcase talent that made them each a state Gatorade Player of the Year in Georgia and Michigan, respectively.But another freshman back looks to prove just as much as the highly touted incoming players.With a reported tweaked left hamstring sidelining starter Ryan Grant from practice for several days last week, red-shirt freshman Travis Thomas [6-foot, 212 pounds] has received first team duties behind the starting Irish offensive line over the past few days.Thomas, Walker and Hoskins are all preparing as if the next carry belongs to them.”Last year was a learning stage, the red-shirt year,” Thomas said. “I took a lot from Julius (Jones) and Ryan (Grant). This year we got a few guys bumped up [in the rotation] and I know what I’m doing. So they’re throwing me in there and giving me that experience, and hopefully I’ll be ready to go in the first game.”Notre Dame out-rushed its opponents 1887 yards to 1526 yards last season, though the bulk of those yards came in explosive outings from Jones.Grant ran for 510 yards and three touchdowns on just 143 carries last season, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. Thomas hopes to contribute at least as much as Grant did last season. “Within the last year and this year, you usually rotate backs a little bit one and two, [like] Julius and Ryan [did last year], and I think we’re going to do some of the same this year.”Coach Tyrone Willingham did not dispute Thomas’ claim that he could see the field early and, possibly, often.”We’ll let the players determine what happens,” Willingham said. “But the truth is if we can be our best – I think it’s usually when you have the opportunity to have two backs … that are always fresh and always attacking the defense, I think you have your best chance to be successful.”During Willingham’s first season Grant ran as the feature back for 1,085 yards and became the seventh player in Notre Dame history to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in a season. His experience and knowledge of the system makes Grant (6-1, 218 pounds) the penciled-in starter, at least for now.”We got a lot of guys who can play,” Thomas said. “But starting off, it’s [Grant’s] to lose. He knows the system well so he’ll start the season off as the starter, but anything can happen so I just got to be ready for my time.”Thomas missed all of spring practice with an injured ankle after red-shirting the previous season. The fall repetitions are working him back into a system coaches feel he fits.”Travis has looked good, but that’s not any different from how he looked last fall,” Willingham said after Tuesday’s practice. “We think Travis can be a good back. He’s got enough shiftiness, elusiveness … speed, and he is big time tough. Those are pretty good ingredients.”While Thomas is beginning to create a buzz with his play in practice, Walker has entered Notre Dame with immediate expectations.No one expects Walker to start, but after breaking the Georgia State Association single-season touchdown record with 46, a record formerly held by Herschel Walker, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound back could challenge for playing time.”I came here because I felt the opportunity [to play] was here,” Walker said. “I’m confident in myself that hopefully I’ll get a chance to see the field, and those are my plans.”Walker admits, however, that he must first adjust to the college game and playbook schemes before he makes an impact.”Right now it’s just me coming in trying to learn the system as best as possible, which has been the hardest thing for me,” Walker said. “We ran sort of the same stuff in high school, but now you have protections with Mike linebackers and safeties … which is a lot different from high school.”Willingham sees the learning curve ahead of Walker, but he also sees a desire to conquer that learning curve as soon as possible.”Darius is not any different from any of our freshmen in that he’s also learning,” Willingham said. “But when you look at the basic skill of being a good runner, he seems to be indicating that he has a vision. That is always a key asset if you’re going to be a very good runner.”Willingham said Hoskins and Walker have had parallel experiences in fall practice.”[Hoskins] is similar to Darius. There are some good things that they’re doing and there are some days where they are … wondering what this offense is all about. But they seem to be progressing well.”Hoskins has had a nagging minor injury and could not be reached for comment. At 6-foot, 195 pounds, the three year, two-way starter from Creston High School in Grand Rapids, Mich. rushed 209 times for 1,621 yards and 19 touchdowns his senior year. He also caught 20 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns and threw a perfect 3-for-3 for 71 yards and a touchdown.Other potential backfield contributors include 5-foot-11, 202-pound senior Marcus Wilson and 6-0, 216-pound junior Jeff Jenkins. Wilson played in 11 games last season and carried the ball 14 times for 29 yards, a 2.1 yards per carry average. Though he has received sparing playing time, Wilson has the most game experience in the Irish backfield after Grant.Anybody could potentially receive the nod at running back, with the depth of the backfield and also with the nature of the position.”I think the running back position is very physical, anybody can go out in any play,” Thomas said. “So if you’re one, two or three, you got to be ready to go.”Backfield bulletsu Senior Ryan Grant needs only 295 yards to become the 13th player in Notre Dame history to rush for 2,000 yards in a career. He has rushed over 100 yards in a game four times for the Irish and has a career rushing total of 1,705 yards and 13 touchdowns.u Freshman running back Darius Walker could be attracting even more attention to himself with his choice of jerseys. Well, that is if it had been his choice. Walker dons the famous number three worn traditionally by Irish greats, including Rick Mirer and Joe Montana. The most recent player to wear No. 3, converted wide receiver Arnaz Battle, is returning kicks for the San Francisco 49ers. “I was No. 7 in high school and I was hoping to try to get that this year,” Walker said, “but Carlyle Holiday moved to wide receiver and he still wanted to keep his number. I wanted a single-digit number, and it was really one of the only single-digit numbers available. So it just worked out that way, I guess.”Injury reportu Ryan Grant appeared to tweak his left hamstring Monday morning and did not practice in the afternoon or on Tuesday. “It’s a minor injury,” red-shirt freshman Travis Thomas said. “It’s not serious so he’ll be ready to go.” u Red-shirt senior linebacker Brandon Hoyte has stood on the sidelines for the major part of the week with his right arm in a sling. Hoyte was second on the team in tackles last season with 74, including 48 solo. Courtney Watson led the Irish with 117 tackles u Defensive linemen Justin Tuck and Kyle Budinsack are coming back from off-season ACL surgeries and have sat out most of practice.