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Now’s the time

Laura Myers | Thursday, September 16, 2010

“You got my hat!” Armando Allen exclaimed as he entered the Loftus Center for a photo shoot with The Observer Tuesday. The senior running back grabbed the small green hat and placed it, at a slight angle, on his head, ready for his close-up.

Allen donned the leprechaun hat in celebration after Notre Dame’s win in the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 26, 2008, and turned it into a post-game ritual in 2009.

“We all laughed, since he’s about 5’5″ on a good day,” said sophomore wide receiver Theo Riddick, a former part of the running back corps with Allen, who is actually listed at 5-foot-10. “He’d get us all laughing and cracking up. It was a good joke.”

But two games into his senior year, Allen isn’t kidding around anymore.

“Some people joke about me being short, the size of a leprechaun,” he said. “But I do it in respect to Notre Dame. That’s my way to say I respect Notre Dame. I tip my hat to it.”

Going to work

That is not to say Allen hasn’t been taking his role at Notre Dame seriously up to now. He was the leading rusher for Notre Dame in 2008 and 2009, with 585 and 697 yards, respectively. His mark of 697 last season came in just eight games, as he missed two games with a sprained ankle and another two with a fracture in his hand.

But Irish coach Brian Kelly admitted last week that he wasn’t sold on Allen coming into the season.

“The way college football is set up we can’t have contact with him all summer long, so you have a two-month period where you don’t even talk to him much,” running backs coach Tim Hinton said. “It takes a little bit to bring out the real personalities when you just don’t know each other very well.”

Especially with sophomore Cierre Wood coming up quickly behind him, Allen had to prove himself all over again.

“It was just practicing hard every day,” Allen said. “That was one of the concerns we had, and I just took it under my initiative to go out there and work hard and give it all I had every day in practice.”

The competition only helped both of them, Allen said.

“That’s always positive,” Allen said. “When you look at our group, from me to Cierre to Robert Hughes to Jonas Gray, we all know that we have a great amount of talent and we all push each other. We use it as motivation. We all know we’ve got great backs here.”

But through his work ethic, the coaches got to know Allen and made the decision to keep him in the starting spot.

“He really does a good job of understanding and learning, taking notes in the meeting room, and understanding the game plan when he gets on the field,” Hinton said. “And he’s practiced hard. The young guy has practiced tremendously hard.

“He really has played the game with a passion and physicality and he’s done a nice job in practice of doing the same thing,” Hinton said. “He’s a very consistent performer. He brings his lunch pail with him every day and goes to work.”

Racking up yardage

Through two games, Allen has had a heavy workload. He has run the ball 33 times for 182 yards and a touchdown, has caught two passes for nine yards and has returned two punts for 47 yards.

Allen has shown the same versatility throughout his career. With 104 career receptions, he is just four receptions away from eclipsing Darius Walker’s record of 107 career receptions by a running back. Ninth on Notre Dame’s career list with 3,638 all-purpose yards, a measure that includes running, receiving and return yardage, Allen needs 312 yards to take over fifth place from 1989 All-American Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, and 1,139 yards to take fourth from 1987 Heisman winner Tim Brown.

“I think it’s really just being in the right place at the right time,” Allen said. “Gaining that trust from the coaches.”

Hinton said there’s only one way for Notre Dame to take advantage of Allen’s many abilities.

“Keep giving him the ball,” Hinton said. “That would be the best thing we can do is keep giving him the ball, get him in space as much as we can. He’s been an elusive guy. He’s been making guys miss. We’re certainly going to work very, very hard to get as many touches as he can have. And his job is to hang onto the ball and perform every time he gets that opportunity.

“I think he will.”

Allen would like to get another opportunity like the one he had in Notre Dame’s 2009 win over Michigan State, when he took the snap in the wildcat formation and connected with former Irish receiver Robby Parris for a five-yard touchdown pass.

“I wouldn’t mind,” he said. “That’s definitely something that’s always been in the back of my head. I’d like to get a chance to do it.”

In fact, Allen has just one feat left to accomplish: a long, breakaway run. Though he runs for a dependable average of 4.6 yards per carry, his career long is 29 yards, a mark he set Saturday against Michigan.

“It’s always good to have a great breakaway run,” he said. “I think growing up, being a senior, you take everything for what it’s worth, but it always felt good.”

That 2010 is his last time through adds a sense of urgency to his season.

“I do feel like I’m running out of time,” Allen said. “I know that I owe Notre Dame so much, for allowing me to come here and take part in something special, so I really want to go out on a good note.”

Leading by example

Allen’s seniority has its upside, though, in an increased leadership role on the team. The coaches selected him to be a captain for Saturday’s game against Michigan.

“It was a great honor to go out there and be a captain and lead this team against Michigan,” Allen said. “It says a lot about what I’ve been doing here and to me it was a great honor to go out there and show that I can do this and I can be in the right place for my teammates.”

Despite his penchant for wearing leprechaun hats, Allen is usually not showy, Hinton said.

“He’s a quiet, unassuming personality,” Hinton said. “Some guys are real flashy, with flamboyant personalities. Armando really doesn’t come across that way. He’s quiet with leadership behind the scenes.”

His early struggles to prove himself made the role even more special, Allen said.

“I’m a more lead by example type guy,” he said. “I started off shaky coming in with the new coaches but right now I understand that I’m here to do whatever I can and just lead by example.”

Hinton assessed Allen’s leadership in the same way.

“Leadership comes in many styles,” Hinton said. “His work ethic and his on-the-field toughness have been the things he’s really displayed.”

Being a leader is even more vital this week, Allen said, as the team tries to shake off a heartbreaking loss and move on to its first road game.

“I think it’s very, very important,” Allen said. “The biggest thing is just to go out there and make sure that everybody has forgotten about last week and is moving on to this week, that we’ve got a new challenge in front of us.”

At this point, Allen is serious about continuing in the same way he has started the season, being an example for his teammates with hard work in practice and performance when it counts.

“We’ve been very pleased with what he’s doing,” Hinton said. “Obviously his challenge right now is to do it consistently for the next ten weeks. That right now is the biggest challenge that Armando has ahead of him. He can’t be self-satisfied. He’s got to be hungry to be better tomorrow, the next day and the next day until the season ends.”