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March 26, 2009

Four in the running to be No. 1 back for Irish

Untitled Document SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Armando Allen is the breakaway back and the front-runner. James Aldridge is the no-nonsense, straight ahead power back who maximizes his skills. Robert Hughes is still trying to tap into his high upside. Jonas Gray is the wild card.

Four players. One position. One football.

"We never sit down and say, 'I'm that guy,' or, 'He's that guy,' " said Allen, who paced Notre Dame's modest '08 rushing attack with 585 yards and a 4.4-yard average. "Our biggest thing is to just go out there and compete."

Until further notice, all four are the guy. Allen has the breakaway speed, but he has difficulty breaking tackles. Aldridge has power but no wiggle, and now, a new position. Hughes is still trying to understand who he is as a runner. Gray has skills but a host of veteran competitors ahead of him.

"Be consistent," said Hughes, almost as if it were his spring mantra. "Come out there every day with a purpose of trying to get better and keeping a focus on the little things that we have to take care of, whether it's pass blocking or finishing runs."

The fact is this is not one of the most skilled halfback corps in the country. Good, but not great. None, other than perhaps Aldridge, has come close to reaching his potential, and Aldridge's skill set is the most limited of the four.

That's why Aldridge will join Steve Paskorz at fullback on occasion to balance out the depth chart.

"I'm embracing it," Aldridge said of the look at fullback. "It's an opportunity for me to get on the field. "I'm just doing whatever they say. I know the coaches have my best interest at heart, both for the team and myself. I'm just going with it.

"[Running backs coach Tony Alford] just threw it out there to see how I felt about it. I was like, 'Look, whatever you all want to do, let's do it. Whatever helps the team. I'm down for it.' "

Moving Aldridge to fullback gives coach Charlie Weis and the Irish a more manageable halfback rotation this spring, particularly if Hughes can provide the consistent battering-ram factor that Aldridge has at halfback for the past two seasons.

The difference is that if Hughes can use his 235 pounds to break the initial tackle, he has some gallop in his game that could allow him to break a few of those runs for 20, 25, 30 yards at a time.

That's a weapon the Irish simply haven't had since Julius Jones in 2003. (Darius Walker rushed for 2,463 yards in 2005-06, but seldom snapped off long runs.)

Allen certainly has the athletic skills to be a 1,000-yard rusher. But he'll never reach those heights if he doesn't learn to make defenders miss. Allen has a tendency to go down whenever the wind whips up in Notre Dame Stadium.

Armando Allen: "Coach Weis said he was bringing in a guy that would be perfect for us [running backs]. The first day we met him, we knew he would be a great coach for us.

"It's always good to have a coach who still has that excitement, as if he's still playing. We feed off his energy. The energy he brings to practice travels through him and through us. We look forward to him every day giving us motivation."

Robert Hughes: "He's a good guy. He's very intense. He's out there like he still wants to play. He's got a lot of energy. He is a high-energy guy."

James Aldridge: "We hit it off well. He's a good coach. You need that enthusiasm on the field. You need a guy that will chew you out when you need it."

"I've watched film and [I have to avoid] going down on first contact," Allen said. "I can always get better at that. Also, in the open field, making that one guy miss and taking it the distance."

Incredibly, despite legitimate 4.4 speed, Allen's longest run at Notre Dame is just 21 yards.

"There's a drill in practice where we finish the plays," Allen said. "Even when coach blows the whistle, you still run and get 20 yards down the field. Keep your feet moving, and once you do that, you can break a lot of tackles."

Allen also brings the pass catching dimension out of the backfield with 50 receptions last season for another 355 yards (7.1 yards per reception).

Allen says he knows he has an untapped upside.

"I really do," smiled Allen, when asked if he realized how good of a football player he could be.

"The two years I've been here, I understand the game now and one of my things now is to bring as much energy as I can to the field. Just go out there and give my all every play."

There's little doubt that Aldridge will play hard with the football in his hands. He knows his strengths and he plays to them with his hard-charging style.

"Me being relentless is my style of play," Aldridge said.

Hughes won't pigeonhole his game. He just wants to be a quality running back while playing with whatever style is necessary on that particular play.

"I just think of myself as a back who can get the job done, whether I need to make a guy miss or run someone over," Hughes said. "Whatever needs to be done, I will do it."

Hughes trimmed a few pounds off over the winter.

"One thing I've tried to do is cut weight," Hughes said. "The other thing I worked on was footwork, trying to get more explosive. You can always get faster and stronger."

Shedding weight does not come naturally to Hughes.

"At first I cut 10 pounds," Hughes said. "I talked to a nutritionist and I was on a strict diet. My genes ... all my family is pretty big. When I was 12 years old, I was 200 pounds. So it's tough to keep the weight off. But it's not an issue."

Hughes said his weight was not a negative factor in his sophomore campaign in which he rushed for 382 yards and just 3.4 yards per carry.

"I felt good [last season], and I feel good right now," he said. "If you see me out there, you see me running around and being elusive and having fun. The weight is definitely not an issue. I feel great."

Absent from the post-practice interview session was Gray, the wild card in the mix. But according to Alford, Gray has entered spring practice on equal footing with the veterans and shows a diverse package of skills to easily put him in the mix of competition.

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