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FOOTBALL: Running backs look to establish offense

Jay Fitzpatrick | Friday, August 31, 2007

Travis Thomas spent almost all of last season on defense and special teams – a departure from his natural position of running back – in order to help bolster the Irish defense with speed.

But Saturday, the fifth-year senior captain returns full-time to the offensive backfield and can already visualize the big plays he wants to make against Georgia Tech.

“I think everyone is excited right now, hopefully,” Thomas said. “I’m just looking forward to the first hit,”

Thomas is one of five running backs at head coach Charlie Weis’ disposal this season, along with senior Junior Jabbie, sophomore James Aldridge and freshmen Armando Allen and Robert Hughes. The stable of running backs has allowed offensive coordinator Mike Haywood to expand his rushing attack in preparation for the Yellow Jackets.

“You have different types of backs,” Haywood said. “You have power backs, you have speed backs, and when you’re going into all your different personnels – maybe three tight end sets, two tight end sets, three receiver sets – you spin backs in and out just to see how do they react versus this, how do they protect this blitz.”

The variability in the backfield is one of the biggest changes from last year’s offense, when then-junior Darius Walker had 60 percent of all rushing attempts and 67 percent of all rushing yards for the Irish.

Although having more running backs available means each player gets less playing time, Thomas sees it as a benefit.

“With the diversity that we have, it allows me to not only do certain things, maybe necessarily a little bit better than some of the backs,” Thomas said. “But it allows me to get a rest in, and, you know, stay fresh, which is something not a lot of teams can do because they may not necessarily have the depth at this position.”

One reason the offense has so many backs at its disposal is the quick change the two freshman backs have made to college football.

“The freshmen are adapting pretty fast, surprisingly, and things are going pretty good,” Aldridge said. “The older guys help out. Even though I’m a sophomore, I’ve been here for a while so I’m willing to help anybody out.”

And Aldridge himself is ready to start taking meaningful handoffs – something he had to wait on last year after a knee injury sidelined him for the first six games of the season.

“I feel good. I mean, it’s time to play. I’m past all the injury stuff and I’m ready to play now,” Aldridge said. “Now I can do things that I wanted to do. No limitations, so I’m excited about it.”

The running backs will have the important task of taking the pressure off whichever quarterback lands the starting job. Haywood and center John Sullivan said the most important thing a young quarterback can do is establish a rushing attack early, which will be a focus of this weekend’s game.

“When you run the ball effectively it allows for play action and just more passes in general,” Sullivan said. “It means they have to put more defenders in the box to try and stop the run. That’s if you run the ball effectively though, which of course will be one of our goals.”

Another step in creating a better situation for the quarterback is for the running backs to perfect their pass protection schemes. Going against a Georgia Tech defense that Haywood calls “dial-a-blitz,” the running backs have to be ready to protect the new signal caller.

“You have to be conscious of your protections and your responsibility on every play knowing that they could throw something at you at any time, and we’re expecting that,” Thomas said.

The running backs have focused on preparing for the blitz throughout their game planning. Haywood said they have spent two individual practices solely focused on pass protection and have gone against the linebacker squad in preparation.

The practice is important, Aldridge said, because of the difference between high school and college pass rushes.

“In high school you may have somebody running in there and you can just butt them and the quarterback can throw the ball off,” Aldridge said. “But in college you really have to strain the gut to protect the quarterback.”

Regardless of the quarterback on Saturday, the Irish offense will look to its tailbacks to ease the transition from backup to starter.

“Whenever you have a young offense, you try to take as much practice off the quarterback as you can,” Haywood said. “What we’re trying to do is take pressure off the quarterback, put more pressure on more experienced players we have on our team.”