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Football: Hughes emerges from committee with 22 carries

Bill Brink | Monday, April 21, 2008

If the Blue-Gold game were real, the coaching staff would have a conniption. Two incomplete passes, a sack and a punt on the first possession don’t add up to an explosive, confidence-building start.

In a real game, coaches would do exactly what they did in the spring game – establish a run game in place of a passing game that fell asleep over the winter and was reluctant to get out of bed Saturday.

To build offensive momentum, coaches ran the ball, 15 times in a row, in fact. The first seven of those calls went to rising sophomore running back Robert Hughes, who gained 27 yards during that span. He finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run, part of a 22-carry, 100-yard day that earned him offensive Most Valuable Player honors.

“It felt good,” Hughes said of his day. “It felt like I could have got more and keep pounding away.”

After Brandon Walker’s 31-yard field goal put the Blue Team ahead 10-0 (or 28-10, depending on your scoring system of choice), Hughes busted a 20-yard run to the left side and followed it with a seven-yard burst up the middle.

Hughes rushed 53 times for 305 yards and four touchdowns last season. Although at 240 pounds he’s already a downhill runner, Irish coach Charlie Weis said he’d like to see him run with his pads lower.

“I think when you’re 240 pounds, the higher you run, the more you’re giving the defense equalizers,” Weis said. “You’re letting them get shots at you. I think you have to run with a little more forward leaning, get your pads down more.”

Hughes said he and Weis had discussed pad level in the past.

“We had talked about it and worked on it,” Hughes said. “It’s just something that I’ve got to focus more on and practice more on and just take a better approach about it.”

Despite the fact that Hughes got a preponderance of carries, he still must contend with rising sophomore Armando Allen and rising junior James Aldridge. Allen had 50 yards on 11 carries and Aldridge had 18 yards on six carries during the spring game.

“I think all three of these running backs can play,” Weis said. “I don’t think there’s any question that you can put any of those three guys out there and you’d have a chance of winning in the game.”

The change in speed and size of the three backs can throw off a defense much like a pitcher changing speeds can confuse a batter. Allen is small, but quick, and cuts well. Hughes is a powerful downhill runner. Aldridge slides in somewhere between the two. Weis said he can – and will – play all three with a clear conscience.

“You’re really not worrying about it, because you’re going to play all three of them,” Weis said. “They’re all going to end up playing, and they all know it. That’s a good thing.”

Ryan Grant, former Irish running back and current Green Bay Packer, said the competition between the three backs would be a positive occurrence.

“They need to make each other better, compete against each other,” said Grant, who graduated in 2005 and was invited back as an honorary coach. “In that sense will make the team better. “That competition is healthy. They can feed off each other; they can make each other better they can learn form each other. Each person has their own style.”

Hughes said the competition between the three backs generates a productive yet amicable relationship.

“You see a guy out there doing well and you want to do well too,” he said. “You know, it’s a friendly competition for all of us.”

But Saturday, it was Hughes who led in yards and carries, Hughes who coaches turned to after early passing struggles. This is still spring ball, but Hughes saw the game as a pacesetter for the fall.

“It definitely gives us something to shoot for when we get back,” he said.