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September 17, 2010
Many times, he simply couldn't be caught.
Armando Allen would break into the open field, shake a little here, wiggle a little there, and he'd be off to the races.
The 1,095 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns during his junior season at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School in Florida didn't do justice to the prowess he displayed on the gridiron. He quickly became one of the most highly touted running backs in the country before choosing Notre Dame as his future destination prior to his senior season.
Then came the broken fibula in a pre-season scrimmage. He missed his last year of high school football, but arrived at Notre Dame as an exciting prospect who could spark the Irish ground game, which he quickly did. Allen played all 12 games in 2007, starting four.
But not once during his freshman and sophomore years with the Irish did Allen look like the back he did prior to the broken fibula. He rushed for 933 yards in the two seasons combined. His longest run was just 21 yards while averaging just 4.2 yards per carry.
Allen couldn't burst away from the pack the way he used to, and he had great difficulty making defenders miss. It would be inaccurate to say he was a shell of the player he once was. But he wasn't the same breakaway back that he had been prior to the injury.
All that began to change during Allen's junior season in 2009. He raised his average per carry to 4.9 yards as he totaled a career-high 697 yards on 142 carries. The injury bug continued to bite. He missed four of 12 games in '09 with an assortment of physical setbacks. But he did record the second, third and fourth 100-yard rushing games of his career, and for the first time at Notre Dame, he began breaking tackles with some degree of regularity.
Allen has yet to reach the century mark in the first two games of his senior season, but this is a different back. He's averaging 91 yards rushing per game and 5.5 yards per carry. He's making defenders miss on a regular basis, both as a running back and a punt returner. He's playing a physical brand of football, taking on defenders when he can't run by them or wiggle past them.
For the first time since suffering the catastrophic injury in high school, the real Armando Allen is emerging.
"With me right now, I feel comfortable where I'm at physically," said Allen, sporting a wrap around his left foot/ankle. "I'm not letting my ankle bother me mentally. I'm just going out there and trying to have fun playing football."
For Allen, the confidence to play without letting the injury enter his mind has been difficult.
"I always knew I was healed, but in the back of my head, you still wonder if you can make those cuts from before the injury," Allen said. "The biggest thing for me right now is going out there and having some fun playing football."
Is Allen seeing what everyone else is seeing in terms of his newfound ability to make people miss?
"Decent, decent, but there's a long way to go to be where I want to be," Allen smiled.
Allen's confidence has expanded to the punt return department, where he's already had a 38-yarder against Purdue.
"I did it last year for a while and I wasn't too confident," said Allen, who actually had seven returns for 66 yards as a sophomore. "But just going back there, and now that I've had an opportunity to make a couple guys miss, I'm having a lot more fun with the game than I've had before."
Allen can afford to take a different approach in his senior season. By the third week of the '09 season, Allen had carried 21 times against Michigan and 23 times against Michigan State - both career highs. The injuries began to mount.
While he carried a combined 33 times in the first two games this year, he doesn't have to pace himself with a bevy of backs waiting to pick up his scraps.
"We have great backs, and it's been that way since I've been here," said Allen, acknowledging the talents of Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray and Robert Hughes. "We most definitely have as much talent as we've had in the backfield, and you always want to push each other.
"It's that feeling that no matter which back is in they game, you're going to get good production. We all have that confidence in each other."
For a player who suffered a high school injury that altered the path of his career, Allen is trying to savor every moment of his senior season, and that includes absorbing some rather pointed instruction from head coach Brian Kelly.
"Coach Kelly has been on my back about certain things," Allen smiled. "He pushes me. I'm a senior and they see more potential in me, and I try to take it as motivation that I can always get better."
Allen knows there's no holding back now.
"It's about going out there and just playing ball," Allen said. "Something the running backs say to each other is, 'Play every play like it's your last.'"
Allen is heeding his own advice.