Irish running backs coach Tim Hinton doesn’t have a lot of options at his disposal this spring, and he likely won’t have many more added to the equation this fall.
Gone are Armando Allen and Robert Hughes, and so too, at least for the time being, is sophomore-to-be Cameron Roberson, who suffered a left knee injury during Saturday’s practice that will keep him sidelined at least until this summer.
That leaves scholarship running backs Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray, and a handful of walk-ons, a couple of which recently were plucked from the student body.
Hinton has his hands full making ends meet.
“We have to be fall-ready,” Hinton said. “They have to be in position where they get enough live reps to see the multiple things that have to be done in the fall so when we get to that time, we’re not still making mistakes.
“But we have to get them to the fall in good health and in a good mental state. It’s 15 practices now, but it’s really preparing for that first game of the year - South Florida.”
In other words, get them ready, make sure they’ve improved, but don’t run them into the ground. So far, so good.
“They’ve gotten better, there’s no question,” said Hinton of Wood and Gray. “Obviously, they understand their roles and they look around and say, ‘I better step up. There’s no Armando, no Robert, it’s me now.’”
Wood stepped up last year in the absence of an injured Allen, and although it was hit-and-miss many times with Wood, he played his best football at critical times such as the regular-season finale against USC, and then the Sun Bowl against Miami a month later.
Wood rushed for 89 yards against the Trojans, including a long run before the end of the first half that set up a touchdown with seven seconds remaining, and then again in Notre Dame’s game-winning drive that sent them to the Sun Bowl.
Wood added another 81 yards on 12 carries against Miami, including an early second-quarter touchdown run of 34 yards that extended Notre Dame’s lead to 21-0.
Hinton is looking for more consistency, and Wood is showing it this spring.
“There is no question that Cierre has gotten a lot better,” Hinton said. “His protections are better, his vision within the holes is better, he’s running more physically, his pad levels are down, he’s accelerating when he sees the hole?
“He’s more like he was in the bowl game than he was in game six or seven last year when he was hesitant and didn’t really accelerate. Now he’s really accelerating, now he’s really running with the pad level. He’s on the outside edge making guys miss.”
There’s never been any question about Wood’s tools. The next step, however, is becoming a complete back.
“One thing Cierre proved in big ball games - USC and Miami - is if you give him green grass, he can make the next guy miss,” Hinton said. “Now what he’s got to do is learn to get yardage better inside the tackle areas when it’s all funneled.”
Slowly but sure, Wood’s maturity is beginning to shine through, and it started late in 2010.
“In the Miami game, he had a long run where the corner and the safety were free and he made them miss,” Hinton said. “He didn’t run out of bounds, which showed maturity. He cut back in when he might have been able to do more outside, but he was smart enough to know the clock was important.
“If we can get him to do those things, he’ll be better. But he has to run with power at times because sometimes the funnel is closed and you have to punch it open. He’s a phenomenal athlete. We think he can have a great year for us.”
The road still to be traveled by Gray is a bit more extensive. Gray has carried the football just 75 times in three years, and nearly half of those came during his sophomore season when he rushed for 119 yards on 34 carries.
A knee injury forced him to miss five games in 2010, and even when he came back healthy in November, all the carries went to Wood and Hughes.
For Gray, the mantra is similar to the one Hughes heard from Hinton all last year: run with power.
“He’s got to,” said the expressive Hinton of Gray’s need to play more physically. “It took Robert a little while to figure out he was 240 pounds. That was our goal; to get him to figure out he was 240 pounds. Now run (like you’re) 240 pounds!
“Jonas is 225 pounds. That’s a big back. Now you’ve got to run like a big back! I said it to him before practice started (Wednesday), ‘Don’t run 180; run 225. Let’s go! Let’s run with power!’”
Hinton envisions a Wood-Gray combination comparable to the one that Wood and Hughes formed down the stretch of 2010.
“If you can get a big back/little back combination going, it’s pound, pound, pound, woo!” Hinton said. “That really wears on a defense, and that’s what we’re trying to get out of those two. But the 225-pounder has to run 225. He’s got to wear you down.”
Hinton sees the confidence in Wood springing forward, and he can tell by the fact that Wood is saying less and letting his actions speak for him.
“He went from that, ‘I’m going to show cockiness to hide my fear that I’m not really where I want to be to now’ to quieting down,” Hinton smiled. “Once they quiet down and quit talking about it, they really are confident. He’s in that stage now where his body language says, ‘I’m figuring it out.’”
While Wood and Gray figure it out, Hinton is giving reps to walk-ons Patrick Coughlin, Tyler Plantz and Ryan Liebscher. Coughlin has been with the program while Plantz - the son of former Irish offensive lineman Ron Plantz - and Liebscher practiced for the first time Wednesday. Hinton also mentioned that senior walk-on Derry Herlihy, who was focusing on graduating from Notre Dame this spring, has come back to help the Irish get through the 15 spring practices.
Meanwhile, Hinton is keeping Roberson involved in the classroom work as he begins his rehab. Theo Riddick, who ran extensively in the Sun Bowl from the Leprecat formation, has focused strictly on receiver this spring. But that could change later this spring and in the fall. Hinton is looking forward to some kind of supplementation at running back when the freshman class arrives.
Cam McDaniel almost undoubtedly will play running back when he arrives after there was speculation that he could play a slot receiver. Another rookie, highly touted George Atkinson III, has a background as a running back but figures to be a receiver on the collegiate level.
“We have a lot of good answers there,” said the always-optimistic Hinton. “You don’t recruit somebody who isn’t a good football player, and (McDaniel) is a good player. There are some other guys like Atkinson who was a tailback/receiver guy in high school.
“Coach Kelly is the greatest in America at creating ways to find the right guys to fit. Whatever it takes, we’ll make it work in the fall.”