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FOOTBALL: Running backs take center stage in spring

Kate Gales | Friday, April 15, 2005

Last year, the Irish fortunes ran on the swift feet of running backs Darius Walker and Ryan Grant.And despite this year’s new coaching staff and fresh offensive playbook, the returning backs are heading full steam ahead into the spring season. “The thing about our team is that regardless of who’s coaching us, we’re looking ahead,” Walker said. “I think last season, we kind of expected to do better. …This year, regardless of who’s coaching us, the team is looking forward to working hard in the off-season and preparing for the regular season.”Directly overseeing their work is Michael Haywood, the Irish offensive coordinator and running backs coach. Haywood first saw time in Notre Dame Stadium as a player, winning letters in 1982 and 1984-86. Most recently, he was the running backs coach at the University of Texas, as well as the Longhorns’ special teams coordinator and recruiting coordinator.”The players are extremely coachable – they’re willing and eager to learn,” Haywood said. “I think they’re getting better, understanding blocking schemes … [and] where the free defenders are. I think they’re getting better as a team.”The Irish rushed for 1,529 yards on 460 attempts last season, culminating in 17 touchdowns.Seven of those scores came from Walker. The freshman had a brilliant breakout season, starting with his two-touchdown debut in the Irish upset of Michigan on Sept. 11. “In a sense I have to prove myself,” he said. “Coming last year, I had to learn the new system coming in, I kind of got comfortable with it. Now, I go on to something else.”Despite the fresh start in 2005, however, Walker has set high expectations for himself and his contributions to the team.”Maybe people are expecting me to do a little better than I did last year, but at the same time it’s something [where] I’m embracing the challenge,” he said.Haywood has worked to develop a strong relationship with the running backs as a unit within the offense, speaking of them only as a unit.”We try to speak of them as a group,” he said, declining to comment on individual progress in the spring practices.Walker said the running backs have embraced the group mentality.”When you’re out there, running backs will switch off, someone will get tired and things like that,” Walker said. “Regardless of what’s going on on the field, it’s a group effort … The kind of players we have here, the kind of unity we have here, we kind of push each other and we want each other to do well, so it is like a family.”As offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, Weis had running back Corey Dillon play a key role in the championship-winning season. He has a specific idea of how Walker and the running backs will fit into his offensive strategy.”I think that our running backs, starting with Darius, have very good instincts,” he said. “I think they have a lot of natural running skills but you also have to force-feed where you want them to go and not give them too much freedom.”The players are not the only ones facing transitions as the season progresses. This is Haywood’s first time as an offensive coordinator, and he will work under a first-time head coach who saw phenomenal success as an offensive coordinator in the NFL.”It’s been a pretty smooth transition,” Haywood said. “Having the opportunity to work for Nick Saban, who worked under Bill Belichek, there’s a lot of similarities [in the system] … in the day to day work schedule, understanding the offensive philosophies.”Haywood made the change to the double duty of offensive coordinator and running backs coach.”Coach Weis has been a really good mentor, he gives a great direction,” Haywood said. “It’s been outstanding, and just coaching running backs is a usual thing, an everyday sort of deal.”The concept of teamwork is one thing that Walker and the running backs will take out of spring practice – perhaps the most important first lesson Haywood can teach.”I think that we’re coming together as a team more, a little different than we were last year, we’re pushing each other,” Walker said. “I think the team unity has definitely grown.”