Running Backs preview: explosive plays wanted

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(As game day approaches, Inside the Irish will be previewing each of the positions leading up to the big tilt with Nevada to open the season. The running backs preview is the first of many to come this week.)

Many were thrilled when Armando Allen signed with the Irish in the 2007 recruiting class. Here was a guy with the speed that Notre Dame truly lacked — a blazing 4.38 forty time that was the fastest at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl combine — and the scholarship offers to prove it.

Allen suffered a broken fibula that ended his senior season at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School before it began. But he still enrolled early at Notre Dame and immediately gave the coaching staff an explosive presence in the offensive backfield with the ability to break one from any place on the field. As Allen enters his junior season, the Irish are still waiting for that big play to come.

It’s a familiar problem with Irish tailbacks. Allen’s 21 yard scamper was the season long last year among running backs. To put that into perspective, seven players on Nevada had runs from scrimmage longer than Allen’s 21 yard dash. The Irish’s anemic 3.27 yards per rushing attempt was good for 100th in Division I – FBS, and symptomatic of an offensive imbalance that plagued the post-Brady Quinn/Darius Walker Irish.

It’s not as if the Irish running backs lack the resume to have a talented running game. Both Allen and his classmate Robert Hughes were highly touted, and senior James Aldridge was an even more decorated recruit than either of the junior backs. Yet the trio, along with rising sophomore Jonas Gray failed to break lose and run wild in an opponents secondary, even with wide receiving threats Golden Tate and Michael Floyd to keep defenses off balance.

Leaving the offensive line play aside (admittedly, a pretty big aside), one theory for Allen’s lack of explosiveness in the running game is his stunted development. Missing his entire senior season of high school with a broken leg robbed Allen of invaluable on-the-field experience, which would have allowed Allen to utilize his top-end speed in a game environment. Allen admitted to feeling a bit overwhelmed during his trying freshman season, one that had him gather valuable reps getting carries and catching passes out of the backfield, as well as returning kickoffs. His sophomore season saw him improve his yards-per-attempt as both a rusher and as a receiver, as well as up his all-purpose yards per game from 98 to 119. Allen dazzled last season against Purdue, where his 134 rushing yards had many Irish fans hoping it was a coming out party. But Allen struggled to find much of a rhythm after that on the ground. Allen’s kickoff return for a touchdown against Hawaii in the bowl game gave Irish fans hope that Allen had finally turned the corner, as it was first explosive play over 41 yards in his career.

With James Aldridge moved to fullback, Allen is the anointed #1 back ahead of the bruising Robert Hughes and Jonas Gray. It’s finally time for Allen to become the back many expected him to be… or expect him to give way to promising freshmen Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood.

If the Irish are going to have a BCS season, giving way to two freshman, regardless of how talented they may be, isn’t the answer. The Irish will need to be successful behind behind the explosive plays of Armando Allen.

And for Allen, it will be better late than never.