Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Spot Rushers | by Mike

Darius Walker does not have top-end speed. That, combined with the dramatics of Notre Dame's high-flying aerial show, would appear to explain how Walker had what seemed like the quietest 1,000-yard rushing year in Notre Dame history. Between James Aldridge's considerable prep accolades and "five-star" ranking and Weis's glowing comments on Munir Prince's speed, many are eagerly anticipating what Weis's offense will look like when Brady Quinn is joined in the backfield by a home-run threat at running back. While this is undoubtedly something to look forward to, I believe we are still a long way from seeing Aldridge and Prince garnering more than spot duty (and not just because of Aldridge's injury). When asked about Walker at today's press conference, Weis had this to say about his starting tailback:

I'd say his number one attribute is he's very gifted at reading fronts. He's one of those guys who, he sees where the holes are, he has great peripheral vision.... The other thing I like about Darius is the things that he perceives as weaknesses, he'll work on a lot. For example, blitz pick-up. Last year at this time, I didn't know whether he'd pick up the blitz or not. This year I would have total confidence that he'll pick up the blitz. He earned that, but that's something you have to work on, that doesn't just happen by accident. You have to go stick your face in there, be fundamentally sound, and be technically sound. It's easy to see what happens when the guy's got the ball in his hands. It's the other things that come into play, and one of the things that comes into play is blitz pick-up.
Darius Walker is not the perfect running back. In 2005, Notre Dame had just 5 rushing plays of over 20 yards, one of which was a David Wolke scramble. Ohio State and Michigan each had 11 such plays, and Southern Cal had a mind-boggling 36 runs of over 20 yards. (It helps to have Reggie Bush.)

So Notre Dame was not an explosive running team. But those who dismiss Walker based on his speed don't understand much about Notre Dame's offense. Last year Notre Dame had a staggering 43 passing plays go for over 25 yards. To put that number in context, Southern Cal had 33 such plays, Ohio State had 30, and Michigan had just 15. Long passing plays rarely occur without excellent quarterback protection, and Darius Walker's exceptional blitz pick-up contributed to many of Notre Dame's big passing plays.

For example, in our top ten plays of 2005, Anthony Fasano's 43-yard TD reception against Tennessee checks in at #2. While we largely focused on Stovall's blocking in our recap, the touchdown was also made possible by a critical Walker block. On 3rd and 8, Tennessee brought six defenders on a blitz, but Walker took out a blitzing linebacker, allowing Quinn to deliver the ball to Fasano. Until Weis is confident Aldridge and Prince can handle the multitude of blitzes defenses are likely to employ in an attempt to slow down Quinn, Walker will continue to shoulder a heavy load.