Aug. 25, 2004
The graduation of Julius Jones and his quick ascension to the number one tailback option for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys will provide the Notre Dame running back corps with a fresh start in 2004. In a lot of ways, Jones dominated the running back conversation at Notre Dame over the last four years – a great freshman season, a disappointing sophomore season, a lost junior season and a dominating senior season. But lost in the Jones saga was the steady development of Ryan Grant, an injury that held back the development of Jeff Jenkins, and a depth chart that relegated possible standout Travis Thomas to the sidelines. Add in a resurgent Rashon Powers-Neal and the Irish have a chance to change the Notre Dame’s running back conversation from a one-name gang to a talented group of established stars and future difference makers. “We hope to develop into one of the strong points of the team,” running backs coach Buzz Preston says. “We have three young men returning (Grant, Powers-Neal and Wilson) who have played a lot and accomplished a lot, especially in Ryan’s case. He was a 1,000-yard rusher just two years ago. So from that point, I am expecting us to be a strong, steady influence on the team.” Grant enjoyed his most prolific season with the Irish in 2002, when he became the seventh Notre Dame player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season (posting a total of 1,085). A gutsy and tough player, Grant is one of the hardest workers on the team and will look to double his output from 2003 (567 yards) when he shared time with 1,341-yard rusher Jones. “You hope that Ryan (Grant) can overcome the injury bug and return to the form he showed during his sophomore season,” Preston says. “Ryan can lead the way for us, which he has been doing during the offseason. He is a great worker and has shown the leadership abilities that we are looking for.” While Jones became the eighth Notre Dame tailback to rush for 1,000 yards last season, the number of Irish players historically reaching that goal is surprising low. Notre Dame football history is full of talented tailbacks, but many of them have combined to rush for mighty totals while not reaching the 1,000-yard barrier. Going back to 1990, Notre Dame has had some great combinations in the backfield that posted impressive numbers that easily combined for 1,000 yards. In 2000, Jones ran for 688 while Tony Fisher had 636; in 1999 with Fisher (811) and Jarious Jackson (734), 1994 with Randy Kinder (735) and Lee Becton (571) and 1990 with Rodney Culver (725), Ricky Watters (607), Rocket Ismail (571) and Tony Brooks (472). Perhaps the perfect example of a great combination of runners was the 1991 duo of Jerome Bettis (971) and Tony Brooks (919). Compare those deep backfields to the team record in some of those seasons (9-3 in 2000; 10-3 in 1991; 9-3 in 1990) and it comes as no surprise that a bevy of talented running backs can transform into team success. Notre Dame has that kind of untapped talent in its backfield in 2004. While Grant is the unquestioned leader, Marcus Wilson, Jeff Jenkins and Travis Thomas all have the ability to be dependable ball carriers as well. “Marcus Wilson will need to take a step and give himself a chance this year,” Preston says. “Thomas did some good things in spring practice, but ended up hurt at the end. We are excited about him.” Jenkins is coming off shoulder surgery but could prove to be a viable option as well. Add in two very highly touted freshmen in Darius Walker and Justin Hoskins and the Irish have the pieces they hope will combine for a deep backfield. Another x-factor at fullback and tailback is senior Rashon Powers-Neal. Utilized as a tailback his sophomore season and a fullback in 2003, Powers-Neal has rediscovered his halfback speed which earned him 77 carries and 344 yards in 2002. A great spring camp has thrust the St. Paul, Minn., native into the mix at tailback. Powers-Neal will also see plenty of time at fullback along with senior Josh Schmidt. Schmidt caught everyone’s attention last season with his hard-nosed play and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield (13 receptions, 125 yards).
Rashon Powers-Neal will factor in the Irish backfield as a tailback and fullback this season.
After Powers-Neal and Schmidt, the Irish have a young player with the body frame and ability to be dynamic player at the fullback position. Junior Nate Schiccatano will get a chance to showcase their talents in 2004. “It is up to them to get out there, stay healthy and lift their performance,” Preston says. “They can help us both in the backfield and on special teams.” With the `Jones Show’ completed in the Notre Dame backfield, Irish ballcarriers hope to combine to make a name for themselves as a powerful unit. “We like the options we have at tailback and fullback,” Preston says. “We have a lot of possibilities and now it is just the matter of it all coming together.” Powers-Neal Primed To Become Notre Dame’s ‘Slash’ Senior Rashon Powers-Neal was seen three radical shifts in his role over the last three years. In 2002, he was a backup and compliment to 1,000-yard rusher Ryan Grant. For the 2003 season, he was a lead blocker as the Notre Dame starting fullback. Ready to begin his senior season, Powers-Neal is poised to become Notre Dame’s version of “Slash,” running back/fullback. “In the past spring, Rashon has really come along with his speed,” running backs coach Buzz Preston says. “He has given us a viable option of having him at the tailback position as well as at fullback.” Powers-Neal has rushed for 359 yards during his career (he did not see action as a freshman in 2001) with a majority of those yards (344) accumulated during the 2002 campaign. A shift to fullback and blocking assignments dropped his carries from 77 to four in 2003 – but a stellar showing during the spring might earn Powers-Neal a return to the plus-50 carry total. Scoring two touchdowns in the Blue-Gold Game, Powers-Neal provided the highlight of the day with a great burst of speed on a 59-yard touchdown reception on a simple dump pass out of the backfield. He also ran twice for 17 yards in the scrimmage and caught another pass for five yards in addition to his touchdown jaunt (his other score was a four-yard touchdown run). With the emergence of Josh Schmidt at fullback and the hope that Nate Schiccatano and Cole Laux can make significant contributions, Powers-Neal might get an opportunity to pick up his new ‘Slash’ role and run with it.