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Football: Three-legged race

Jay Fitzpatrick | Thursday, April 3, 2008

Last offseason, one of the biggest questions for Notre Dame’s offense was who the starting tailback would be. Darius Walker, who accounted for three quarters of the team’s rushing yards and 60 percent of its carries, defected for the NFL after his junior season, leaving a void in the backfield going into the spring.

This year, running back is one of the most solid positions in the Irish offense, with three experienced rushers ready to handle the load.

Rising junior James Aldridge and rising sophomores Robert Hughes and Armando Allen each bring different styles to the Irish offense. Hughes is a stereotypical “power back” who mostly ran dives up the gut. Allen played more of a finesse game, running outside the tackles and catching screens and swing passes. Aldridge was a combination of the two, showing both speed and strength at different times.

None of the backs received as much playing time as Walker did two seasons ago, but their even carries created similar results. Aldridge carried 121 times for 463 yards, Allen was second on the team with 86 carries and 348 yards, and Hughes rounded out the group with 294 yards on 53 carries. As a unit, the trio carried 260 times for 1,105 yards, or 4.25 yards per carry. By comparison, last season Walker carried the ball 255 times for 1,267 yards, and average of 4.96

The clearest advantage to having this many backs, Weis said, is that he can be confident going with any of the three of them in any situation.

“That’s one of the positions on the team where you can put three guys out there and feel confident that you are putting a top-flight player out there,” he said.

Weis also said that the running backs themselves will “dictate how much they play” based on their performance in spring camp. But regardless of who is standing in the backfield for the first snap, Weis said that all three can expect to see playing time in each game.

Weis said that he is not looking at anything in particular during the spring; rather, he is doing an overall evaluation of the various skills necessary for a running back to succeed.

“I’m just looking period. I’m just watching. I’m watching blitz pickup. I’m watching run reads. I’m watching routes. I’m watching their hands. I’m watching their knowledge. I’m watching for mental errors. It’s all encompassing. I’m looking at everything they do,” he said.

Aldridge said this system is “bittersweet” because it means more rest, but with that fewer carries.

“You can get into a flow when you get 20, 25 carries but you also can get tired after a while,” he said. “Naturally a person’s going to get tired. Coming in and having fresh legs is also a good thing too. I’ve always been a big fan of fresh legs.”

Aldridge said he understands how the system works and that he supports Weis’ decision to play whichever tailback seems most ready for that week’s game.

“I know coach Weis is a big fan of seeing who has the hot hand and that’s who you go with. That’s smart. I can’t argue with that,” Aldridge said. “He pretty much leaves it up to us to see what we can do.”

Aldridge also said the unit has worked to develop the “swagger” Weis said he wanted to instill in the team this season, in large part because of offensive coordinator and running backs coach Mike Haywood.

“Our swagger is up there because we all run with an attitude. And that comes from the coaching. Coach Haywood coaches the running backs and his personality comes out through us. He’s a high-tempo coach, big time attitude guy and that’s how we’re running the ball.”

Notes:

uKallen Wade’s mother Valerie Wade passed away this week. Saturday’s practice and coaching clinic has been moved to 7:30 a.m. at Wade’s sister’s request so his teammates can join him at the funeral Saturday afternoon in Cincinnati.

uWeis and special teams coach Brian Polian visited Virginia Tech on Tuesday to talk with Hokies head coach Frank Beemer, whose teams are known for their great special teams play. Weis said in return he talked with Virginia Tech’s offensive coaching staff.