Born to run
Mike Gilloon | Friday, September 30, 2005
If someone had told Darius Walker last year that he would begin the 2005 season with four-straight 100-yard rushing performances, he would have been thrilled. But after being the first Irish running back to do just that to open a season, Walker and his teammates aren’t satisfied.
Players and coaches say it is this hunger that has made Notre Dame successful in rushing the ball so far – and is key in continuing the solid Irish ground game.
The Irish have thrived this season with a combination of Walker’s shifty ability to turn a loss into a 15-yard gain, coach Charlie Weis’ shrewd play-calling and – most importantly, according to Walker – the performance of the offensive line.
Making a move
Three more consecutive 100-yard games and Walker will tie former-Notre Dame running back Lee Becton for the Irish record of consecutive games rushing for over the century mark.
While the sophomore prefers to credit his offensive line for his chance at cementing a place in Irish history, his teammates think he’s being too modest.
“What most impresses me is his consistency,” Irish fullback Rashon Powers-Neal said. “He just goes out there and plays hard every play. He gives it his all every time.”
This effort has propelled Walker to 448 yards this season, well on his way to eclipsing the 786 yards and freshman rushing record he set last season.
His running style can be called unconventional. Instead of hitting the hole right away, Walker often hesitates, opting to juke a defender or reverse to the opposite side of the field to avoid the defense.
Even when the opposition wins the battle on the line, Irish tackle Ryan Harris believes Walker always has a chance to break open a big play.
“[The key to our success this year is] we have talented backs,” Harris said. “We work hard as an offensive line. Coach Latina has really worked us hard in terms of being physical and working technique.
“But a lot of times it’s just our backs being talented individuals who can make a play out of nothing or who can just make a guy miss and stretch that run for an extra ten or fifteen more yards.”
The new coaching staff has also helped Walker average 4.8 yards per carry and 112 per game. Irish offensive coordinator/ running backs coach Mike Haywood, who coached first-round NFL draft pick Cedric Benson last season as running backs coach at Texas, has helped Walker be more patient in his decisions.
“He’s helped me understand that some plays take a little longer to develop.” Walker said. “I don’t feel too antsy and feel like I just have to do something when I have the ball. [The game] is not such a shock anymore.”
Calling the play
Coming to college from his role as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, Charlie Weis brought with him a philosophy of taking what the opponent gives you. And with the Irish passing game flourishing and spreading the field, opponent’s rush defenses have tended to give Notre Dame plenty on the ground.
Walker credits Weis with knowing what plays to call to thin the defense and efficiently pick it apart.
“Coach has one of those philosophies where we’re just ready for everything every week,” Walker said. “The object is to do whatever’s working. If they roll the safeties down and stuff eight, nine men in the box, then we’ll just throw the ball. And if they don’t stack it like that, then we’ll just run it.”
And run it they have. Walker’s 23 carries per game have helped the Irish to an average of 179 yards per game on the ground and seven total touchdowns – two by Walker. All of it comes from Weis’ play card.
“[Weis’ playcalling] has definitely boosted our confidence,” Walker said. “When we’re out there the defense doesn’t really know what they’re going to get from us. We feel that whatever play we’re running … it’s going to work. We kind of feel like we can’t be touched while we’re out there.”
Harris, Walker and the Irish have been careful not to criticize the previous coaching staff for struggles in 2004, but they also acknowledge the new leadership is a big reason for their success.
“I don’t think there’s a better play-caller, I don’t think there’s a better head coach out there right now,” Harris said. “You know that any given play coming in from the sideline could be the play for a touchdown. Whether that’s in the middle of the drive, early in the drive or deep into the drive. [Weis] has our full confidence. He’s won four Super Bowls. What else do you want to say?”
Clearing the way
With only six regular contributors, the offensive line has been forced to take on an aggressive, no-excuses attitude under the new coaching staff. The recent injury of center Bob Morton against Washington has thinned the group of regular contributors to five, hampering their numbers but not their attitude.
“We don’t get all the glory, [we’re spurred on by] that desire to kind of spring the offense,” Irish guard Dan Stevenson said. “It all starts up front. I think coach Weis has instilled [this mindset] in us. You can’t let yourself feel sorry for yourself because you’re tired or you’re banged up.”
While Morton’s injury will hinder the thin unit, Latina continues to stress the need to strive for perfection in order to continue the powerful rushing attack.
“I don’t know if you ever play a perfect game in the game of football, but you sure try to,’ Latina said. “We’re trying to correct any little mistake because you never know when that one little fundamental mistake is going to cost you the game.
“Every game is a new entity, a separate deal. Every defense that you face … gives you different problems so you have to get through the week and fix and learn how to attack that defense.”
Often underappreciated by fans and the media, the Irish offensive line receives plenty of respect from the one group that has the most to gain from it -Walker and the Irish running backs.
“I really appreciate the things they’re doing out there for me,” Walker said. “It’s not just me. They’re making big holes for me to run through, and I’m a smaller guy, so I can squeeze through the holes.”
But the line isn’t the only group making room for Walker to run in 2005. Rashon Powers-Neal and true freshman fullback Asaph Schwapp have provided a productive combination at the fullback position.
“[Powers-Neal and Schwapp] are incredible,” Walker said. “They just clear the lane for me They’re just two big, fast guys – like trains running through the hole.”
Continuing the success
Notre Dame is impressed with its success rushing the ball this season. But the key to keeping up the potent Irish running game, according to the players and coaches, is to avoid the temptation to be satisfied.
“It does feel good as an offense to have the success that we’ve had,” Walker said. “But at the same time there’s pressure because we’ve got to keep these numbers up.”
And the key to continuing the high numbers, Stevenson said, is adding on what the team has been doing correctly.
“We’re all on the same page,” Stevenson said. “I think the big thing is just confidence. Its something we just need to keep building on.”
If the past is any indication, Notre Dame will struggle at times tomorrow. Purdue has beaten Notre Dame two years in a row. The last time the Irish visited West Lafayette, in 2003, they ran 25 times for 49 yards in a 23-10 loss. The way to win this year’s game, the players say, is to run right at the Boilermakers, wearing their defense down and giving Walker a chance to break loose.
“You have to go into every play hoping that that play makes a difference,” Harris said. “But if it doesn’t you just have to go to the next play.”
Because with a difference-maker like Walker in the backfield, that next play might be a touchdown.