Spring Solutions: Running Backs

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(The first in a series of updates on the positional battles that took place during spring practice.)

It doesn’t seem like too long ago that rumors were swirling about a possible position switch for Cierre Wood. With Wood buried on the depth chart behind Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, Jonas Gray, and Theo Riddick, there were whispers that Wood was moving to the secondary — or even worse — considering a transfer.

Fifteen short practices later, and the eyebrow-raising decision to move Theo Riddick to slot receiver is coming into focus after Wood dazzled at the Blue-Gold Game. With the Irish running game stuck in neutral for much of the Weis era, Brian Kelly’s Irish offense should lean heavily on a running attack that now realistically could be called four-headed.

Here’s a look at the current eligibility of the Notre Dame running backs and what we can realistically expect from them:

2010: Armando Allen, Robert Hughes
2011: Jonas Gray
2012: (Vacant with Theo Riddick’s move to WR)
2013: Cierre Wood
2014: Cameron Roberson

Armando Allen is still the class of the running backs. While he didn’t steal the headlines that Wood and Gray did during the Blue-Gold Game, he’s still the best all-around back that the Irish have, and he’s the high-water mark of a talented position grouping. The knock on Allen is his inability to make the big play, puzzling because he’s got the skill-set you’d expect from a big play running back. His career long carry of 26 yards is shorter than Hughes 37-yard scamper against Washington last year, not to mention two long runs Hughes broke off during his freshman season. Still, Allen displays good hands out of the backfield, surprisingly tough inside running, and the speed needed to get out in the open field. A chance to run in Kelly’s fast-paced offense, and new offensive line coach Ed Warriner likely means we’ll see Armando break a long run this year.

Many expect Hughes to be the odd-man out in the new offense, but the powerful senior running back is far from conceding a diminished role in the offense. Hughes has always impressed with his light feet and great size, and in an offense as varied as Kelly’s, you’ve got to think that the new staff will find a formation or scheme to feature Hughes in the backfield. Having added the slash to his resume by taking on fullback duties, Hughes might find himself lead-blocking in goal line situations, or perhaps as a playaction weapon out of the backfield. Hughes averaged over 10 yards a catch last season, a nice perk for a 245-pound running back.

Beside Wood, Jonas Gray has to be considered one of the better stories of the spring session, especially considering that there were rumors that Jonas might not be participating in practice at all. Not only did Gray practice, but he made an argument for serious playing time during the Blue-Gold Game, breaking off dazzling runs and getting tough inside yards as well. Gray has to be a pleasant surprise for new running backs coach Tim Hinton, who will look to find carries for the junior out of Detroit.

Cierre Wood is a perfect example of the proper use of a redshirt year. While many worried that Wood was going to get lost in the shuffle, the reluctance of playing Wood on special teams last year let’s him enter the season with four full years of eligibility remaining, perfect when you consider that both Allen and Hughes graduate after this season. Wood apparently struggled at times last year with his fitness levels, but if his performance last weekend was any indication, strength coach Paul Longo has whipped him into proper shape, and the Irish have another versatile weapon in the backfield.

Incoming freshman Cameron Roberson wasn’t originally recruited by the new coaching staff, but Kelly has been effusive with his praise, and he’s reportedly a good fit for the Irish’s one-back attack. With the depth chart in front of him, the decision on what to do with Robertson will be a good indication on how Kelly values freshman eligibility. Unless Roberson dazzles this summer and during fall camp, there’s no reason to think he’ll get any playing time this year, keeping him off of special teams and allowing him to develop on the scout team taking most of the snaps at running back.