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Waiting in the wings

Justin Schuver | Thursday, September 30, 2004

When Darius Walker burst on to the Notre Dame scene against Michigan, rushing for 115 yards on 31 carries, he showed that the Irish had a talented young running back willing to step into the stoplight.But you might have to make some room on that stage for Justin Hoskins and Travis Thomas, as well.Hoskins, a freshman like Walker, and the sophomore Thomas could give the Irish tremendous depth at the running back position, something that has proved important so far this season with senior starter Ryan Grant constantly hobbled by injuries.Thomas started Notre Dame’s first game of the season against BYU after Grant’s injury prevented him from playing against the Cougars. The sophomore ran the ball six times in that game, fumbling it twice, and was eventually replaced by Marcus Wilson and Jeff Jenkins. Thomas got another opportunity to run the ball against Michigan State, but fumbled late in the game as the Irish were trying to put the game away.Thomas’ bout of “fumbleitis” has frustrated nobody more than the running back himself.”I had my spot and was starting, but the fumbles have set me back a little bit,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep working. I’ve never had this problem before; it’s all new to me.”The ball control issues overshadow Thomas’ potential. As a senior at Washington (Pa.) High School, he rushed for 1,176 yards and 18 touchdowns and was named a SuperPrep All-American and member of Pennsylvania’s all-state team.Thomas’ coaches believe that he will eventually fix his fumbling problem and has the potential to be a very good back when he does so.”It’s one of those things where coaches try to come up with a lot of different drills to fix the problem,” Irish running backs and special teams coach Buzz Preston said. “It’s a concentration factor, and it’s a sad state when a back goes through that, but sometimes it happens.”The best thing you do is just keep pushing the young man and hopefully at some point that concentration factor comes through and things can work themselves out.”Another young back that has already raised some eyebrows – primarily on special teams – is Hoskins. Preston talked about the role that Hoskins and Thomas have played in helping the team add depth this year.”They’ve given us some energy and some spark and will hopefully make some progress toward being all around backs and helping us get some wins,” he said.Hoskins was named the Gatorade player of the year in the state of Michigan, and came in ranked 18th on collegefootballnews.com’s list of the top running backs in the nation (Walker was 19th). In addition to his role as a running back on the Creston (Mich.) High School football team, Hoskins also served as a versatile jack-of-all-trades on offense, catching 20 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns and completing three passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. At one point, Hoskins even punted the ball for his team, averaging 37 yards per kick.Hoskins has already proven his ability on special teams this year, returning a kickoff against Washington well past the 20-yard line before having it nullified on a clipping penalty. The freshman probably raised a few eyebrows, too, when he leapfrogged a Washington player during that long kickoff return, something that Hoskins acknowledges he loves to do.”I did long jump in high school,” he said. “My adrenaline is so high, I don’t think about doing it, it just happens. I see the opponent kneel his head down, and I see the opportunity to jump over him and make him look a little stupid.”With Hoskins’ athletic ability, Irish coaches are considering giving the freshman a chance to display his talent in other aspects of the offense as well.”I think that [Hoskins] has a great deal of athletic ability and having the opportunity to get him some runs as a running back will always help a player tremendously,” Irish offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick said. “We can expand his role, and we’ll find some things he can do to help us.”