During the winter there was a lot of moaning and groaning about the hiring of Brian Kelly at Notre Dame because the team was switching control from one pass happy coach to another who is just as determined to air the ball out.
However, do not take Kelly’s penchant for throwing the ball as a sign that Notre Dame will continue to have a weak running attack.
In fact, the Irish may have a very powerful ground game in 2010, one which could see the Golden Domers gain the most yards in nearly a decade.
That means Notre Dame may approach a milestone believed unthinkable during the Charlie Weis era: 2,000 yards rushing.
Thanks to Weis’ strong recruiting efforts, Brian Kelly is now walking into a situation in South Bend where there is a lot of talent and experience at the running back position.
So much so that I believe Kelly will ultimately lean heavily on the ground game this coming fall.
It may seems unbelievable given Notre Dame’s past struggles in this area, yet the running game could end up being the strong point for the offense in 2010.
Now, let’s address the four main questions heading into the season.
Will Armando Allen Stay Healthy?
This is obviously the biggest question heading into the season since Allen is the anointed starter and a senior with a ton of experience.
Without a healthy Allen, it is likely Notre Dame will struggle on the ground in the same manner the program has over the past eight seasons. Not since 2001 has Notre Dame rushed for 2,000 yards as a team, a depressing fact if there ever was one.
But, with a strong, rested and healthy Allen, the Irish ground game has a lot of potential to do damage on Saturday afternoons.
If Allen is able to run more north-south and hit the holes with speed in Kelly’s new offense, then a 1,000-yard season is well within reach.
How Much Production from Cierre Wood?
Cierre Wood is an x-factor simply because he is projected to be Allen’s backup and his yardage could swing the potency of the Irish ground game in either direction.
A nice and productive red shirt sophomore season from Wood likely means Notre Dame will be, at minimum, a good running football team. However, a season of struggle from the Oxnard, Calif., native probably means the Irish will continue to be a below-average rushing team.
I’m betting on the former and I believe Wood should immediately share carries with Allen at the start of the season.
I don’t think Wood should simply be used as Allen's backup, but rather, that the sophomore is ready to be treated as if he is a legitimate No. 1 runner.
Knowing Kelly’s penchant for using multiple backs, it is likely that Wood will get his fair share of carries and make an impact from the opener against Purdue and onward.
I know Wood is still very young and hasn’t proved anything yet at the college level, but this kid could be something special.
He was one of the top running back recruits in the country a year ago who had a sensational high school career (4,234 yards with a 13 YPC average to go along with 54 touchdowns as a junior and senior), and he looked amazing in the spring game, even if it was against a vanilla defense.
Perhaps more importantly, Kelly switched Theo Riddick to receiver specifically to get Wood carries in the backfield this year, quite a statement for a player who has yet to step on the field for any game action in an Irish uniform.
Most Irish fans would agree that it was actually freshman Theo Riddick who looked like a future superstar with his admittedly small sample size as a kick returner and running back in 2009. Nevertheless, Kelly is now basically saying Wood is going to be the future at the position.
Is it possible that Wood will be even better than Riddick?
Will Wood be part of a revival of the Notre Dame running game in the future?
That may very well be, for it looks like Wood will be an integral part of the offense from the beginning since he is thought very highly of by the new Fighting Irish coach.
What Will Dayne Crist Add?
A lot of pressure will be riding on Crist to take over this new offense and move the ball through the air, but his ability to make plays with his feet could add another dynamic weapon on the ground.
Due to his injured knee, we may not see Crist run the ball a lot early in the season, but at some point he will increase his carries and begin racking up yardage on the ground.
Given the lack of a rushing attack from the Irish quarterback position in recent years, anything Crist offers can be seen as a bonus and just another reason why Notre Dame could have a stronger ground game than in past years.
Last season, with mobile sophomore quarterback Zach Collaros under center, Brian Kelly had his signal caller rush for 344 yards on 57 carries with four touchdowns.
That is 72 fewer yards on 31 fewer carries with one less touchdown than Robert Hughes, Notre Dame’s second-string back in 2009. And that is also with Collaros, who stepped in for the injured Tony Pike, not even playing a full season.
So, while it may not be realistic to expect a whole lot from Crist in the 2010 running game, his talent combined with the new coaching and offensive system indicates that there is still the possibility that Crist makes some plays with his feet this fall.
Crist may not be a true burner, but given full health he should be able to scamper for six or seven yards on quarterback keepers and reads from time to time.
How Many Carries and How Many Runners?
How often will Brian Kelly run the ball? How many different runners will he use? How many carries will each player receive?
In terms of offensive plays from scrimmage, there was not much of a difference between Kelly’s Cincinnati teams and Weis’ Notre Dame teams as Her Loyal Sons has documented over the past week.
From 2007 to 2009 Kelly’s teams averaged 69 plays per game while Weis’ teams averaged 68.5 plays per game for the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
Since the amount of plays per game should be roughly the same, how many rushing plays can we expect under the new regime?
Again, the amount of rushing plays for both coaches mirrors the overall amount of plays from scrimmage.
Kelly averaged 33 rushes per game, while Weis averaged just over 32.
Certainly neither coach ran the ball a ton, but these are pretty decent numbers from coaches who are known to throw the ball and it shows that both were at least somewhat committed to the ground attack.
Furthermore, the problem with Weis’ Notre Dame teams wasn’t that they didn’t run, but rather, his teams weren’t very good at it when they did so.
Poor red zone play, missed opportunities on third-and-short and a general inability to keep opponents honest with the ground game have all been well-documented problems from the Weis era.
Kelly on the other hand, is much more efficient.
Last season Notre Dame averaged only 3.8 yards per carry, while Cincinnati averaged 5.0 per rush.
That extra 1.2 yards per carry is a huge difference and one that can translate into winning two or three more games a season.
In Kelly’s first year at Cincinnati he actually ran the ball 13 more times than he threw it, and I expect the run-pass ratio in 2010 to be about even. It wouldn’t even surprise me if he ends up calling more running plays throughout the entire season.
This means we may see Notre Dame run the ball close to 500 times in 2010.
At any rate, let’s assume Notre Dame averages 70 plays per game and that the run-pass ratio is even. At 35 running plays per game, here is how the season could play out:
Allen—182 carries, 1,019 yards (5.6 YPC)
Wood—130 carries, 663 yards (5.1 YPC)
Gray—52 carries, 223 yards (4.3 YPC)
Crist—52 carries, 234 yards (4.5 YPC)
Hughes—26 carries, 114 yards (4.4 YPC)
Others—13 carries, 97 yards (7.5 YPC)
If you add up those numbers, the team will have rushed for a whopping 2,350 yards putting them somewhere close to 30th in the nation.
As mentioned before, it is highly likely that Kelly will use a running back by committee philosophy as he is not known to rely on one player to carry the team’s load on the ground.
Keeping his runners fresh and utilizing the depth chart could be a big advantage for Brian Kelly in his first season in South Bend, crucial to maintaining a potent offense from September through late November.
Last season, Kelly had one runner with over 100 carries while the back up carried the ball 74 times. The remaining 166 carries were given to a handful of players, including quarterback Zach Collaros.
In 2008, Kelly had two players with 130 carries or more and five players shared the 477 carries during his first season at Cincinnati in 2007.
This fall, Allen should get the most carries and I have him projected to run the ball 14 times a game with a decent increase in his yards-per-carry average from 2009. As long as he stays healthy I think these are very reasonable numbers.
What’s more, Cincinnati’s starting running back Isaiah Pead averaged 6.7 yards per carry in 2009, so is it too optimistic to think that Allen could do the same?
I have Wood running the ball 10 times a game with a very respectable yards-per-carry average, but he is still an x-factor who could be a boom or bust player. He may struggle and not come close to this kind of production, but I think he has the necessary skill set to do so.
Jonas Gray is another interesting player who may very well end up getting a lot more carries than this, but it is still too early to tell what role he will have.
As a back with a great mixture of size and speed, Gray may be used quite heavily in short yardage situations and will certainly be called upon if there are any injuries ahead of him on the depth chart.
As I previously stated, it is tough to tell what Crist will do on the ground, but three rushes and one sack per game is probably a good estimate, if not slightly conservative.
Nevertheless, I think Notre Dame fans will be happy with at least 200 yards and a quarterback that is able to convert third down plays with his feet. Instead of throwing fades and passing the ball at the three yard line, Crist will be much more likely to stuff it home on his own.
I don’t see Robert Hughes getting a lot of carries, but there should be sufficient short yardage situations where he’ll be touching the ball a couple times each game. This fall, his impact may be felt more as a pass receiving fullback or blocker rather than a runner.
The last category involves the three play makers that will get their hands on the ball in any number of ways. Personally, I think this category could triple in carries and yardage but we’ll have to see what kind of plays Kelly draws up for Riddick, Floyd and Rudolph.
We can probably expect a handful of reverses to Floyd and some running plays to Rudolph through the tight end option play that was used in the spring game. Maybe these plays only pick up a small amount of yards over the course of the season, but there is also potential for something bigger.
Just thinking about Rudolph taking a quick flip from Crist as a hole opens up in the middle of the line should get any Irish fan excited about the upcoming season.
A lot of people are probably wondering how Riddick will be used now that he has switched to receiver.
He probably won’t be a prime-time threat in the passing game early in the season because he still has much to learn at his new position, but Riddick could make a sizable impact on gadget plays, reverses, and plays in which he motions into the backfield.
Even if Riddick only touches the ball twice a game in this regard and still averages a healthy yards-per-carry average, the team will have rushed for an additional 200 yards or more.
In fact, don’t be surprised if Riddick surpasses Golden Tate’s rushing statistics from 2009 because Kelly’s system is more conducive to getting the ball to the team’s play makers and he will probably want to get Riddick a certain amount of touches outside of catching the ball from Crist in the slot.
There may be no wildcat formations, but you can bet that Riddick will get his fair share of looks through the running game even though he’s moved to wide receiver.
Summary: Realistic or Rosy Expectations?
Maybe it was the promise shown during the Blue-Gold game (soft defense duly noted) or the fact that Kelly has coached surprisingly good running teams in the past, but I like Notre Dame’s chances on the ground next year.
Perhaps we’ll see a couple injuries and too steep of a learning curve with the new offense, resulting in a ground game that will struggle to gain 100 yards each game.
But I think those days are long gone with the arrival of Brian Kelly, his coaching and offensive playbook.
I think it’s more likely the Irish will approach 2,000 yards and turn into a spread offense similar to Oklahoma’s that can beat teams through the air as well as on the ground.
So expect Notre Dame to continue throwing the ball with fervor in 2010, but don’t be shocked if the Irish also have a very respectable running game.
There are only about 100 more days until we find out.