Fall Back: Camp Questions

The Irish 'backfield finally hit its stride

We interrupt the Spring Forward column series with a look back at last August's four pressing Camp Questions, and the answers provided by the 2010 Irish.

A look back at our four Camp Questions from last August and how the answers helped define Notre Dame's 2010 season.

#1 Will the D-Line Wither?

The answer: a definitive, resounding "No" served as the chief storyline to Brian Kelly's first season.

In five 2008 November games (four losses), the Irish rush defense yielded 858 rushing yards and 10 TD. In '09, the yardage total rose to 1,052 with 10 more rushing TD in just four games (four losses).

The program's recent failures vs. the run was consequently the most important question facing the 2010 Irish. Entering 2011, it's: what can you do for an encore?

In three November games and the late-December bowl last year, the Notre Dame front wall keyed a rush defense that allowed just 367 yards (2.9 yards per carry) in four games (four wins), surrendering just one rushing touchdown.

It was a team effort, but one notably led by defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore; backup nose guard Sean Cwynar; swing defensive linemen (DE and NG) Hafis Williams, and later by starting nose guard Ian Williams, who rejoined the team after a five-game absence (knee).

Only the latter Williams has moved on, allowing the 2011 Irish D-Line to rank as a definitive team strength…with ample reinforcements in its underclass ranks.

In other words, the same camp question won't be relevant next August.

For the original column question, click here.

#2 Can the Irish win the 50/50 ball?

Answer: Absolutely

Outlined extensively in the original column, the 50-50 ball wasn't merely the vexing and occasional jump ball that seemed to continually find an opponent's grasp in 2009 – but the pass vs. downfield, one-on-one coverage that was repeatedly successful vs. Notre Dame's maligned '09 secondary.

The 2010 Irish didn't allow a touchdown pass in November. They allowed more than one in a single contest just twice: a breakdown at Michigan State (3, including a fairly memorable special teams passing score) and in the garbage-time fourth quarter blowout of Miami in the Sun Bowl.

From that unfortunate night in East Lansing through the regular season finale, Notre Dame yielded five passing scores (nine games). Two were defensive breakdowns (BC and Pittsburgh); two others were at the expense of the linebackers (one a borderline 50/50 ball: Stanford's Coby Fleener vs. Brian Smith) and the fifth a well-run slant by Tulsa's Damaris Johnson vs. Robert Blanton...player beating player – something every staff and defense must occasionally allow for.

To a man, the Irish secondary played the ball in the air markedly better than did the same players in 2009 (with Blanton's downfield coverage leading the 2010 resurgence).

We asked defensive backs coach Chuck Martin about the 50/50 ball last August – apparently his method to combat such passes, and notably, his teachings, took root.

"You can do it by throwing them a lot of balls," he began, "and (instill) a little bit through a mindset. But probably the most misunderstood aspect is decision-making. Part of it is the decision: ‘Do I try to play the ball or do I try to play through the arms?' If the ball's between (for example) me and Michael Floyd, there are times when the ball might be tilted a little bit my way, where it might be a time to bat it down, or it might be a time to get two hands on the ball.

"And there's times where maybe it's a little tilted toward (a big receiver) and I'm trying to flail at the ball; I didn't lose the battle for the ball, I lost the decision. (Because) that's the time I had to try to play through the arm, when the only way I'm going to keep someone from catching it is to pull an arm down."

No defensive backfield wins every airborne battle – the Irish won far more than they lost in 2010 and that should continue with returning veterans next fall.

#3 Who will serve as the complimentary piece? (WR)

Answer: Unclear…and still to be determined for 2011.

Michael Floyd was the offense's only constant, starting 12 of 13 games (Navy) and leading the team in every relevant receiving category. Theo Riddick held down the No. 2 role when healthy (5 receptions and 80 yards per game with four scores), while tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert combined for 55 receptions, 680 yards, and five touchdowns over 13 combined starts.

The offense's actual compliment came from a committee, with freshman T.J. Jones making the largest impact (23 grabs, 306 yards, 3 TD) and senior Duval Kamara contributing late (10 receptions, 100 yards, 3 TD over his final four games in an Irish uniform).

The same question resurfaces entering 2011, though Jones has a leg up on the competition, a group that includes junior Robby Toma in the slot, senior John Goodman (again) and massive sophomore Daniel Smith on the outside, and a pair of incoming freshmen targets.

Floyd is the unquestioned No. 1; Riddick likely No. 2; and the detached tight end Eifert a solid, potentially spectacular No. 3…look for Jones to fend off a host of competitors and provide consistent play as a complimentary piece next fall.

(For the original Camp Question, click here)

#4 Can a quartet of running backs co-exist?

There was never a hint of dissension, and the whole ended greater than the sum of its parts, but Notre Dame's 2010 backfield struggled to involve its components for a large part of the season – not coincidentally, the part in which they failed to consistently win football games.

Armando Allen won the job with Cierre Wood as his change of pace ‘back. The most dual carries earned by that Irish early-season pair was 25, vs. Purdue (18 Allen/7 Wood) in a convincing victory.

Conversely, the three lowest totals by a pair or trio of 'back last season was a head-shaking 19: Allen 15/Jonas Gray 4 against Stanford; Allen 13/Wood 3/Gray 3 at Michigan State; Allen 11/Wood 8 vs. Navy – all Irish losses.

Allen was lost to injury after the Navy contest and Wood took over, eventually ceding carries to senior Robert Hughes in a revamped offensive attack. Thereafter, the Wood/Hughes/Gray trio combined for 20 carries vs. Tulsa (Wood 16/Hughes 4/Gray 0); 26 vs. Utah (Wood 19/Hughes 4/Gray 3); 32 vs. Army (Wood 14/Hughes and Gray 9 apiece); 26 vs. USC (Wood 15/Hughes 11) and a whopping 39 vs. Miami (Hughes 27/Wood 9).

Notre Dame finished just 2-5 (beating Pittsburgh and Western Michigan) when its top trio of running backs carried the ball 21 times or fewer. The Irish were perfect, 6-0, when a pair or trio of ‘backs earned 25 or more attempts.

No 2010 contest featured a carry by every member of the quartet.

Season rushing/receiving totals

  • Cierre Wood: 119 carries, 603 yards, 3 touchdowns plus 20 receptions for 170 yards and two scores.
  • Armando Allen: 107 carries, 514 yards, 2 TD plus 17 receptions for 138 yards.
  • Robert Hughes: 68 carries, 300 yards, 2 TD plus 7 receptions for 67 yards
  • Jonas Gray: 20 carries, 100 yards, plus one reception for 13 yards.

Hughes' 27-carry effort in the Sun Bowl ranked as the largest single game total since James Aldridge toted the rock 32 times (for 125 yards) vs. Navy in 2007.

Predictably, Hughes' game efforts improved in concert with a greater work load. Entering the season, Hughes averaged 5.74 yards-per-carry when he touched the ball at least 9 times in a contest. Fewer than 9? The average dropped to 2.94 (original column can be found here.)

As an outgoing senior, Hughes averaged 4.84 yards per carry and totaled 252 yards with two touchdowns in the four contests in which he received at least 8 carries (attempts of 8, 9, 11, 27). In his four other backfield appearances (attempts of 4, 1, 4, and 4) he managed just 48 total yards and 3.69 per rush (no touchdowns).

At season's end, nearly 100 rushes separated the team's top performer (Wood) from its least involved competitor (Gray), and that number seems appropriate for a quartet of 'backs.

But neither Wood nor Hughes would have likely received as many carries if not for a season-ending injury to Allen. The difference between leader and Hughes (third in total carries) would have likely been much greater if not for injury at the top of the ranks.

The team and the offense shined when the backfield featured a two-headed monster rather than featured ‘back. Will that approach be embraced as the spread offense moves forward in Year Two of the Kelly regime? Can Gray or redshirt-freshman Cameron Roberson provide the north-south punch that Hughes did over the final five weeks? Can three 'backs find a way to consistently contribute to the Irish attack?

That pressing Camp Question will be examined again, next August…

The original column, Am I my brother's keeper? can be found here.

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