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Mind game

Bill Brink | Friday, October 30, 2009

When the Irish coaches told Armando Allen and Golden Tate in the spring that the team would install plays from the Wildcat formation, Allen and Tate looked at each other and laughed.

“Like, ‘Are we really doing this or is it a joke?'” Allen said. “But when we looked at the playbook, there it was, the Wildcat.”

That’s one new role for Allen. He’s filled others this season, too, evolving from a shifty scat back his freshman year to a powerful yet explosive runner who averages 4.9 yards per carry this season. Aside from physical improvements and running backs coach Tony Alford’s practice techniques, which contributed to his play, Allen’s improvements came in the stereotypical Notre Dame fashion: he got smart.

“In high school the plays aren’t as difficult as they are in college,” he said. “You play the game but you don’t understand the game. I think understanding the game helped me out as a running back.”

Learning curve

Allen rushed for 1,095 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School in Hialeah, Fla., even though he missed three games because of injury. In the preseason before his senior season, he broke his fibula and missed the season.

Allen watched tape of games of himself in previous seasons and realized that since the broken leg he was leaving his knees low, making it all the easier for defenders to tackle him. This offseason, he ran stairs to improve his knee drive.

He also gained 10 pounds without losing speed.

“I think that’s a tribute to him as a young guy who wants to get better,” Alford said. “He wants to do things right. He’s his own worst critic.”

Alford wants big plays out of his running backs, he said, and he said he’ll be needing some monsters, not 12-yarders. Allen has been on the cusp of breaking away a few times this season when the last man in his way snagged an ankle as he flew by, and Alford said the solution is simple.

“Pick your feet up,” he said. “It’s not rocket science. Pick your feet up.”

And Alford has stressed that principle in practice.

“We’ve worked on that a lot. They have a lot of drills now that requires us to pick our feet up or we’ll fall,” Allen said. “We’ve done a pretty good job at it in practice we just have to translate it over to the game.”

Physical training, however, won’t suffice. To successfully implement the skills acquired in practice, Allen said he needed to learn how the defender would attack him.

“If you know a person the only way they can bring you down is by grabbing your feet, then automatically your mind’s thinking pick your feet up,” he said.

Getting inside the defender’s head helped him elsewhere as well.

“I’m not just getting the ball and running left and right, I understand where this ball should go and the type of things my defenders would try to do to bring me down,” he said. “It helped me out as a runner.”

Spring training

The Irish averaged 3.3 yards per carry last season, and critics of the program made sure they knew it. Allen took it to heart.

“We understand that part that we have a lot of talent, but from the outside looking in nobody really knows how much talent that we have,” he said.

Allen took it upon himself to display that talent. He asked Alford for tips to work on during the spring and summer.

“I said here are some things we need to work on and he took that to heart. It wasn’t something magical that I did,” Alford said. “The kid wants to be good. He was asking, ‘Hey, what can I do better? What can I improve on?'”

That improvement is evident. In six games, he’s rushed for 514 yards and three touchdowns, good for 85.7 yards per game. Last year, he rushed for 585 yards all season, an average of 45 per game.

Like any smart running back, he’s got his offensive line’s back. Sick of hearing the criticism for how the linemen couldn’t block when he saw them working hard every day, he buckled down to prove that they could.

“When I see those guys working hard every day,” he said, “whether it’s in the weight room or on the field, we kind of take that to heart too.”

The Wildcat formation helped improve the look of the running game, which is averaging 3.7 yards per carry this season. Despite Allen and Tate’s doubts, the Wildcat was real. Once they started running the plays in practice and picked up good yardage, the team started taking it seriously.

It also started a debate between Allen and Tate as to who got the glamorous position.

“I think when you’re the Wildcat guy you’re kind of like the quarterback,” said Allen slowly, smiling. “That was the big debate.”

Catching a snooze

That’s Allen’s hobby. He sleeps whenever he can because of how tough Notre Dame’s practices are.

“Whether it’s 10 minutes or 20 minutes, you can always catch me trying to get a nap,” he said.

Outside of football, Allen focuses on his family. He checks in with his parents and brothers often. He said he’s humble by nature: When asked about individual goals against Washington State, which is currently 114th against the run and allows 215 rushing yards per game, he demurred.

He also demurred when asked about his biggest weakness — he hemmed and hawed for a minute, then, “Can we come back to that one?”

Again, Allen is smart. He referred to Washington State as a “trap game” despite its 1-6 record. He knows that on the road — or at home, as the case may be — anything can happen.

“It really doesn’t matter where we play,” he said. “We could play in the street. We play at our field, their field, just going out there and being focused and understanding the importance of no matter who we play, we’re playing the football game.”

A leg full of problems

Allen’s had bad luck with injuries since high school. He broke his wrist in the first game of his freshman year and missed half the season. He missed the three games in his junior season and his entire senior season.

This year, he’s struggled to stay healthy while battling ankle, knee and thigh injuries.

His ankle has bothered him all season and kept him out of the Purdue game. Against Boston College, he took a helmet to the side of the left knee that knocked him out of the game, but coach Charlie Weis said it was still his ankle, not the knee, which currently bothers him.

Allen wasn’t too optimistic about his chances against Washington State this weekend.

“I’m just going with it day by day,” he said. “I show up to practice every day like I normally would and see how that goes, see what they allow me to do.”

He called himself day to day.

If there’s a week where he might get some time off, this is it, because edge-of-the-seat victories notwithstanding, Notre Dame is expected to pile up a big lead against Washington State. Allen wouldn’t be happy with that, but he has faith in his coworkers in the backfield.

“There’s never a week where I’m okay with not playing but I also know that if that was the case we have great athletes to get the job done,” he said.

A smart response from the smarter running back.