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Football: Alford hopes to take running game to new level in ’09

Joe Meixell | Tuesday, March 24, 2009

At the end of the 2008 season, Irish coach Charlie Weis identified the rushing attack as one area that needed drastic improvement if the Irish were going to excel in 2009.

“We’ve identified as one of the things we really want to work on right off the bat offensively is our running game,” Weis said in his introductory spring football press conference Friday.

Notre Dame averaged only 3.3 yards per carry in 2008, and only 109.7 yards per game. The ground attack finished 100th in the 119-team Division I FBS (formerly I-A).

In order to speed up the improvement, Weis brought in two new coaches at the positions vital to the running game – Frank Verducci at offensive line coach and Tony Alford at running backs coach. Verducci replaced John Latina, who resigned, and Alford replaced Mike Haywood, who was named head coach at Miami (Ohio).

Monday was the first day the team was allowed to practice in full pads, and Verducci said it was just the start of a very long process.

“I certainly didn’t anticipate to go out there today and hit our peak on day one,” he said “And I don’t think we’re in danger of peaking any time soon, from what I saw today.”

Verducci said that while it may take some time for the players to adjust to his style of coaching, the only thing he was concerned about for now was that they were focused.

“Technical errors right now I can understand because a lot of the things I’m teaching they haven’t been exposed to before,” he said. “But in many ways assignment-wise this is the same offense that they’ve been in and we spend time before practice trying to put them in as many situations as possible, so the mental errors are more disturbing.”

The listed starters on the offensive line are sophomore Matt Romine at left tackle, junior Eric Olsen at left guard, junior Dan Wenger at center, junior Chris Stewart at right guard, and junior Sam Young at right tackle. The depth chart is not finalized, though, and once fifth-year senior Paul Duncan is accepted for a fifth year, he is expected to play a big role. Verducci even said he expected Duncan to be the starting left tackle.

“My chips, to be up front with you, are on Paul Duncan right now,” Verducci said. “The exposure I’ve had with him has been nothing but positive.”

Moving to the backfield, Alford, too, said that at this point in spring practice he was most concerned with the effort he was seeing. That effort, he said, would translate into improved confidence.

“They have to understand how good they can be,” he said. “They have to feel that they can be good before they will be good.”

The one notable change at running back this spring will be the shifting of senior James Aldridge to fullback, which Weis mentioned Friday.

“He took some reps at fullback today,” Alford said. “It’s new to him obviously, so there will be some growing pains there for him. But he’s a tough guy. He wants to play.”

Alford also added that Aldridge would still play some halfback, as well as the new position.

One new face that could be in contention next fall is freshman Jonas Gray, who played sparingly in mop-up duty in 2008. Alford said that, as a new coach, all the players were on equal footing so far.

“I have no preconceived notions on who can do what,” Alford said. “[But] I’m forming my opinions very quickly. It isn’t taking me long to form my opinions, which my mother has always told me to keep to myself.”

Currently, the depth chart has Armando Allen listed as the starter, and Alford said the sophomore has a very high ceiling.

“He really enjoys playing the game,” Alford said of Allen. “He’s very into getting better, asks a lot of questions, and wants to improve.”

For all the running backs, Alford had some very straightforward words of wisdom.

“Don’t think so much. This isn’t rocket science. Just go play.”