The excitement accompanying a new toy on Christmas Day is something everyone can relate to. Likewise, we all understand the decided let down of opening grandma’s gift and finding a home knit wool sweater designed in crooked argyle. Now that most of us are a bit older we certainly see more Fruit of the Loom packages on Christmas than new toys, but we get our kicks elsewhere in life. One area in particular: Watching college football.
It is no secret that Notre Dame fans enjoy the pleasurable anxiety of drooling over a blue-chip recruit’s film while praying every day that he opts to put on the Golden Helmet and signs on the line. Then hopefully comes the rush on signing day when that long awaited player declares, "I will be playing football for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish". Then we wait.
Withdraws soon take over as we hover like addicts, waiting for any tidbits of news from spring and fall training. Then that shiny new toy plays a season or two and isn’t the clone of The Rocket that we imagined. He doesn’t run like The Bus, and he doesn’t catch like Tim Brown. But, by then we are fine, we have some new toys waiting.
Cut to the scene unfolding now in South Bend on the Notre Dame campus. Talented toys are coming into Notre Dame in numbers that have not been seen for a long time.
With new toys comes the every growing expectation of overnight success—those elusive super-stud freshmen and underclassmen that will come and save us all. There are a myriad of areas that fit this bill currently at Notre Dame, from linebacker to quarterback. I want to talk about the running back situation.
Many have already waved their magic off season wands of decision and said indeed, Jonas Gray is the uncontested starter at tailback for Notre Dame. Not so fast my friend.
Let's not forget about those he will have to beat out for the spot—specifically Armando Allen. I personally think Robert Hughes is a different kind of back that can be used effectively and is very talented, but since Armando Allen was pretty much the uncontested starter for the 2008 season I will focus on him.
First, let us meander down memory lane.
The recruiting class of 2007 is set to have a big role in rebuilding the Notre Dame program. Enter all of the names we know and love from Jimmy Clausen to Golden Tate and beyond. Also enter Armando Allen.
The year before Notre Dame grabbed up James Aldridge a five-star back that was to return the Irish to a team that can run the ball with force. Time now tells a different story as James has been injured often, ineffective at tailback and the Irish ground game worse for it.
As much as James is a great person and a hard worker—it is an example of a top recruit not panning out as expected. So Notre Dame recruited Armando Allen and Robert Hughes to be the future if James Aldridge couldn’t get his feet under him. Here is where I point to first to explain why Armando Allen hasn’t been the incredible back that we expected out of the gun.
My first thought on why Armando Allen hasn’t made Irish fans coo-coo for Coco Puffs is because he played in 2007. While I do think he did gain some valuable experience that will make him a very good back this season, if we wanted to see something really good in 2008 Notre Dame should have red-shirted him. I think he was still a bit underweight and was thrown to the wolves.
Robert Hughes was much more physically developed as a freshman and it showed as he did very well in 2007. Armando Allen also didn’t play his senior year of high school. He essentially went a year and a half without playing in a game. I am surprised that he was even able to do what he did in 2007. His 348 yards is not anything to go crazy over, but seeing all the factors that were against him, and coming off the injury while splitting carries, and running behind an atrocious line, I give him a pass. He did average a personal best 4.0 yards per carry.
That’s not too shabby for a rusty freshman
Before he broke his leg as a junior, scouts were oozing praise on him like a baker puts icing on a cake. He was called “one of the best backs in the nation” several times. He ran for over 1000 yards in nine games against the toughest competition. He was to become Notre Dame’s new golden boy.
Remember, Gold Domers what it felt like to grab him over Florida? Then he only ran for those measly 348 yards and we all wondered where the speed was. Clocked at 4.3 at the AA combine we all just knew he was going to be a terror to catch. When he didn’t break many runs in 2007 for long yards or touchdowns, we began to wonder.
Come around to this season and we start to see some good things. My biggest fear after the 2007 season was if the kids could still believe in themselves. Coach Charlie Weis said the same thing over and over in press conferences and I agreed. Some didn’t, but personally I think a team has no chance at all if guys are not confident in their own ability, and the ability of those around them.
In 2008 we saw a large improvement in Armando Allen. He was larger, and wasn’t afraid to run straight into guys he knew were going to pummel him, and he never quit even when it seemed there was never a hole in front of him.
This is the second thing that I think was hurting all of Notre Dame’s running backs. It is hard to teach a running back how to have good vision to see holes when there are none. That is where Armando’s speed has gone. That hesitation in trying to find an opening that should be there somewhere caused him to look a lot slower than he really is. His blazing 4.3 speed has turned into a 4.7 because of that .4 of a second that he has to wait for a hole, then decide.
I do not blindly place all of that on the offensive line as at times there were holes and Armando missed them, however I do feel that it would be far easier to solidify a running back’s understanding of the concept of running the zone, if they could actually run in the zone once in awhile. Even with a line that seemed completely incapable of run blocking at times, Armando Allen improved. He jumped up to an average of 4.4 yards per carry and turned himself into a receiving threat as well.
In his second season Allen's combined total yards, not including special teams gains was 940 yards. That is not super star combined yardage at all, however he was Notre Dame’s third leading receiver. That is telling.
Most backs have much more yards on the ground but don’t usually accumulate more than a hundred yards receiving, at most usually not more than 150. There are always exceptions. For example, this season Knowshon Moreno had 392 yards receiving—it is really based on the offensive schemes, but that’s another article for a later date.
A sophomore running back getting that many receiving yards with Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, David Grimes, and Duval Kamara, all being in the above average to excellent category as far as wide receivers go Allen was the third leading receiver. No other running back on Notre Dame’s roster was even close. The reason behind this is the fact that Armando Allen is deadly in space. He can cover a lot of ground when he plays confidently. He is the best screen runner Notre Dame has and could end up being the best they have had in a long time.
The knock on Armando coming out of high school was that he wasn’t that great between the tackles, but he had the speed to kill teams on the edge or in space. That ability to get yards out of the screen is what makes Armando a deadly back.
The touchdown that he scored against Hawaii off the screen was a 21-yard touchdown screen pass. Too bad they were at Hawaii’s 21 because had they been at their side of the field it would have been so much prettier to see Armando Allen run the majority of the field.
No Hawaii player was going to catch him on that play. On another play he broke for a 41-yard gain, also on a screen pass, and had a few Hawaii players not been fast on their reads and gotten the angles correct he would have had another long score.
The talent is there without a doubt. As the season wore on he began to see the field better and better, and gain confidence. If you look at his kick return in the Hawaii game, you see that he was playing with the speed that comes from knowing exactly what you have to do.
If there is anyone that can improve Armando and bring him to a new level as a junior, it is running backs coach Tony Alford. Alford has a track record of making backs run well in the zone system. It seems like any back he worked with improved and kept improving. Armando will benefit from his no-nonsense approach to practice and work ethic. Of course being trained in the finer points of reading the zone blocks will not hurt either.
Don’t give up on Armando Allen just yet. It can take a long time for a running back to recover mentally from an injury and get back into the groove of things. Towards the end of the season it seemed that Armando was ready to take that step—he has certainly done so on special teams. I fully expect Armando Allen to surprise some people in 2009.
He has all the right physical talents to be a good back, but has suffered from injuries in and struggled behind a woeful offensive line. He is the style of back that works in a zone blocking system as pointed out by the earlier mentioned zone blocking article by Anthony Pilcher.
The three other backs, Gray, Aldrdge, and Hughes are all better at the straight ahead-downhill rushing style with limited cuts. Armando has the footwork to take advantage of cutback lanes, and if he learns patience, with adjusting to the developing play. If Armando finally grasps the concept in the off season he will be an explosive back that will open up the running game for the rest of the backs. Armando Allen is primed to really show off next season. I don’t think his kick return in the Hawaii game will be his last either.