For decades it was a position of honor in college football. And for 11 seasons, the starting Notre Dame fullback ranked as a “Who’s Who?” both on campus and the national landscape.
The early 80s featured four Irish stalwarts at the position in John Sweeney (1979-81); Larry Moriarity (1981-82); and Mark Brooks and Chris Smith (1983-84).
Pernell Taylor and Braxston Banks (1986-1988) then rejuvenated the position after a one-year lull, as Banks exhibited flashes of his talent with eight total touchdowns in 26 games (eight career starts).
But Notre Dame’s unprecedented (and unmatched) 11-season run of fullback excellence can be traced to 1986 with the combination of Banks and a freshman from South Bend Adams High School Anthony Johnson.
A Decade of Dominance
- Anthony Johnson (1986-89): 37 total touchdowns (including three in two bowl game victories); 1,888 yards from scrimmage on 383 touches and, for those of you into trivia, the only player to catch a touchdown pass in the 1989 season for Notre Dame (Johnson caught 2 for the 12-1 Irish).
- Rodney Culver (1988-91): 1,147 yards and 13 total touchdowns in three seasons at fullback – before switching to tailback as a senior captain.
- Jerome Bettis (1990-92): 1,797 yards on 322 carries; 32 receptions for 429 yards, and 38 total touchdowns in his final two seasons – including six touchdowns in two bowl wins)
- Ray Zellers (1991-94): 13 touchdowns and 1,321 yards from scrimmage on 242 touches in a three-year span (1992-94). Irish head coach Lou Holtz said of Zellars midway through his senior season (prior to an ankle injury): “I don’t know if we’ve ever had a fullback play better on an all-around basis than Ray Zellers is right now.”
- Marc Edwards (1993-96): 32 total touchdowns on 327 touches for more than 1,770 yards from scrimmage in four seasons as a contributor.
Edwards, who along with Johnson and Culver served as a team captain during his tenure at the University, graduated after the 1996 season, and in the 12 seasons since, Notre Dame fullbacks have rushed for 13 touchdowns.
In most cases, repeating a sentence is either a.) grammatically incorrect, or b.) annoying. In this case, it’s c.) necessary: 13 rushing touchdowns in 12 seasons from the fullback position. (Ashley McConnell added a receiving TD vs. Michigan in ’06).
Rashon Powers-Neal accounted for nine of those 13 scores from 2002-2005; Jamie Spencer (who had his moments as a ball carrier) scored three in 1997-98, and Tom Lopienski added one in 2002.
Enter Irish senior and converted tailback James Aldridge. Notre Dame’s pass-oriented offense won’t feature the new fullback (or even one of a quintet of tailbacks)…but it could finally include the position as a viable part of weekly game plans for the first time since Week Five of 2005 – Weis first season.
Whether Alridge is capable of channeling great fullbacks past is irrelevant – what is essential is that the position again becomes a threat for what should be an explosive passing attack and, it is to be hoped, relatively balanced offense.
“What it allows me to do now that I really haven’t done in the past,” Weis began when addressing his new fullback threat, “now we can combine James with, let’s say, Armando (Allen) and motion Armando out of the backfield. Now you can see what coverage teams are playing against you; you can get matchups based (on that coverage); and if they treat Armando like a wide receiver (the Irish can) just hand off to James and have the same advantage as if he were the halfback…”
Weis continued, using the skill set of the aforementioned Rashon Powers-Neal as point of reference.
“It allows you a lot of flexibility – we haven’t had a guy like that since Powers-Neal was here; one that had (strong) running ability at that position.
How often might utilize his former lead runner?
“What I’ve tried to do this camp – taking over as a coordinator – is get back to the way I used to set up the offense: (which is) take fewer plays, from more personnel groups and more formations. This way the players can get a core group of plays and (master) them.
“By using more personnel groups and more formations, we can cause that indecision on the defense. I’m not saying it’s a third or a half (of the plays); I don’t know the percentages, but that’s the way we’re setting up the offense so we’re not locked into one personnel group based on one (particular) play.”
Two minutes with James Aldridge is enough – enough to realize that his move to fullback will be seamless, at least off the field and on the practice field or in the locker room. The former five-star tailback recruit has evolved into the consummate team leader that knows what it takes to improve on a daily basis.
“I’m still grinding,” said Aldridge in yesterday’s player interviews. “Day-in and day-out; if I’m not (minding) my “Ps and Qs” we have somebody that can replace me too.
“(The key to his adjustment) is just playing football. Just being an athlete and going in there trying to perform to the best of my abilities. If they want me to go in there to run, to block…I’ll do whatever. If they want me to go run the ball I’ll do that.
“I’m comfortable just playing ball. You have an assignment and you have to execute it. That’s at any position. I’m just playing a different position right now.”
Though the transition from lead back to fullback has been easy for Aldridge’s ego, he admitted a few intricacies of the position differ from his previous role as halfback.
“Timing, technique: when you’re run-blocking, keeping your head on the (correct) side; trying to have a base when you block, stuff like that. It all just takes reps and that’s what we’re in the process of doing right now."
A Changed Man
“When you go through school here and figure out what everything is about and what this University stands for – it’s something that just naturally happens,” said Aldridge of his willing adjustment to his new position.
Feel free to dismiss the senior’s comments as typical pre-season rhetoric. We’ve heard it before from both better runners and lesser players; and it’s a refrain sung by players across the nation each August: “Whatever I can do to help the team win…”
But in Aldridge’s case, his sincerity regarding the life-changing experience of attending Notre Dame suggests that the comments above should be considered more than empty internet copy.
“This school in general has made me a well-rounded person. Being able to do the things I’ve done here (off the field); meeting the people and just going places – it’s made me more of a well-rounded person.
“I’m wiser. Walking in (to the University as a freshman) and walking out… I’m a totally different person – this school has really changed me. I’m all for Notre Dame. I bleed blue and gold now, I really do.
“I’m one of those people that is a living testament that walked through it and the school changed me.”
You might have noticed Aldridge's reference to the old English phrase, "P's and Q's" in the section above. There's likely a reason for the antiquated reference...
Aldridge, classmate and roommate Toryan Smith, and sophomore Sean Cwynar spent their summers training not only for the upcoming season, but for life after the game, studying abroad.
“I lived in London – traveled through the Netherlands,” explained Aldridge of his summer semester studying Dutch art. “I went up to Antwerp and Harlem; Amsterdam; Brussels; and just got a chance to experience different things – a unique culture. I opened up to a different way of life and that was really cool and a unique situation at this time in my life.
Aldridge earned six class credits, was able to tour the BBC studios, and, as he put it “watch a little British cinema…we learned about artists that revolutionized the early 1700s and 1800s in the Netherlands…it was really cool experience.”
“We really had a life-changing experience,” said Aldridge of himself, Cwynar, and Smith. "Toryan went to southern Spain and said that was a really cool experience too.”
Last Chance to Make a First Impression
“My first position when I first started playing was fullback so I’m getting back to my roots now,” said Aldridge on media day in early August. “It taught me to make the best of my opportunities because I really didn’t get the ball that much but when I did, I made plays, so hopefully that same rule will apply to this season.”
Aldridge is apparently used to looking at the bright side of any situation, as he was, by his estimate: “6 or 7 years old” when he first made the most of those limited chances at the fullback spot.
The 2009 slate of Irish opponents are likely a bit more advanced than those Aldridge faced in the mid-90s during his previous fullback heyday, but the chance to contribute remains the same:
“My role is to be a football player and to execute what coaches tell me to do.”
Nearly four full seasons have passed (October 1, 2005 at Purdue) since an Irish fullback has rushed for a score. A return trip to Europe (and incidentally, a clothing line Aldridge has begun to help develop) can wait.
Thirteen games remain for the former and current fullback to make a first impression.
Aldridge (as a Tailback) on 3rd and Short:
- 2007: Converted 5 of 11 chances (4-6 vs. Navy) into Irish first downs
- 2008: Converted 10 of 15 chances into Irish first downs