Oct. 1, 2014 NOTRE DAME, Ind. – There are no forgivable fumbles in the world of University of Notre Dame football running backs coach Tony Alford.
Muddy, slippery conditions?
Numb hands from a biting, frozen wind?
Enemy defenders jack-hammering the ball during a swarming tackle?
“No, absolutely not,” Alford stated emphatically, a look of complete distaste crossing his face at the mention of the word fumble.
“A fumble is an unacceptable deal. If you feel like the ball is coming out, fall down. When your knee hits the ground, you’re down. Once you’ve tucked the ball away and secured it, you have it and you’re running … no, there is no forgivable fumble.”
Alford delivers a fire-and-brimstone message about protecting the football every day the Irish strap on their armor for practice or a game.
Notre Dame boasts a 15-0 record under head coach Brian Kelly in games in which the Irish have not turned the ball over.
Irish running backs have gotten the message loud and clear. The Irish lost only four fumbles last season, the fewest in the nation in 2013 (tied with Bowling Green, Utah and Virginia Tech). Of those four fumbles, Irish running backs Cam McDaniel, George Atkinson III, Tarean Folston, Amir Carlisle and Greg Bryant carried the ball 383 times in 2013 and only lost fumbles twice.
In fact, since the 2010 season, Irish running backs have carried the ball 1,548 times and only lost it 11 times.
It’s a trend Alford wants to see No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0) continue on Saturday against No. 14 Stanford (3-1). Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. EDT at Notre Dame Stadium.
Despite football security numbers that rank among the nation’s best, that’s still not good enough for Alford.
“Two years at Iowa State, we never put it on the ground,” said Alford, a former Cyclones assistant who has been at Notre Dame since 2009. “There were only 13 fumbles there in an eight-year span.”
“You have to protect the football,” Alford said. “You can’t score if you don’t have it. Every position group has something that is a badge of honor for them, something you hang your hat on. Ours is protecting the football.”
If a running back loses the message and the ball, Alford is waiting on the sidelines to reinforce that message.
“I’m not that arm-around-the-shoulder guy,” said Alford, whose passionate demeanor turned fiery Saturday night against Syracuse when Irish running backs lost two fumbles. Only one of the fumbles (by Bryant) counted. The other was erased by a penalty. They both mattered to Alford.
“We go back to work, that’s how we deal with fumbles,” Alford said. “We’re more vigilant, more diligent about what we do, because somewhere along the line, we got lazy. Somewhere along the path, we got lazy. If they got lazy, that’s on me, the coach, because I obviously allowed them to get lazy somewhere along the path. We lost focus, and that’s on me. The players have to take ownership, too.”
When a running back loses the football, there are consequences. The turnover brings a drive to a screeching halt. The opposing team gets a tidal wave of momentum when it recovers a fumble. There are also consequences after the game.
“You make life miserable,” Alford said of how he deals with a fumble by one of his running backs. “If you put it on the ground, you can’t play. Your reps get diminished, especially if you’re a habitual offender.
“Maybe that’s unrealistic for me to say that, but that thought process has worked for me in my career. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s mine, and I’ll own it. If I’m wrong, I’ll stand up and say I’m wrong. But right now, I don’t see it any other way.”
Irish running backs face a gauntlet of fierce drills every day to make sure fumbles never happen. There’s the blaster drill, where a machine with multiple arms slaps at the ball. There’s the pull and rip. Alford has even been known to have grease applied to footballs for drills when a rainy, sloppy field is in the forecast.
There are drills at every practice designed to help the Irish running backs keep a strong grip on the ball. The drills are not designed to be pleasant.
“There are drills where guys punch the ball as hard as they can,” said Notre Dame running back Tarean Folston, a 5-foot-9, 209-pound sophomore from Cocoa, Fla. “We do it every day. Whether it’s Coach Kelly or Coach Alford, we do the drill where you hold the ball high and tight to your body with the five pressure points (ball center of the hand, middle finger on the tip of the ball, length of the ball on the forearm, end of the ball to the elbow, and then hug the ball to your sternum).
“We do that drill, and people rip at it and rip at it, and then we burst out. Then we do that again, rip at it, rip at it, and somebody comes behind you, and you spin out and you burst out for 10 yards. If you have the right technique, that ball shouldn’t be coming out.”
Folston said protecting the football is ingrained deeply into his football soul.
“I used to run wild with the ball,” Folston said. “We work on protecting the ball every day. We work so much on it now that during the game instincts kick in. You don’t necessarily tell yourself, `Okay, here we go. Hold the ball tight.’ You know once you’re in the hole, you can’t be wild with the ball, because at every level, people are ripping at the ball. That’s what defenses are taught.”
McDaniel, a 5-10, 205 senior from Coppell, Texas, said he learned about football security at an early age and the message became even more intense at Notre Dame.
“My high school football coach (Joe McBride) put a big emphasis on protecting the football for me,” McDaniel said. “He used to tell me that when you’re carrying that football, you’re carrying the hopes and dreams of that town on Friday night. That’s Texas high school football for you, right there.
“That’s the kind of mentality you have to have,” McDaniel said. “At Notre Dame, you have 80,000 fans in the stadium for a home game. They’re yelling and screaming for you. They want to support you. It’s all Notre Dame nation.
“You have your teammates. You never want to let those guys down, the coaches, everybody who puts all of the blood, sweat and tears into the process. It’s a kind of count-on-me thing. That’s something that has resonated here since I was a freshman. Because of that, creating that atmosphere, I think that’s why we’ve taken good care of the football.”
For Alford, technique is only one part of the equation for protecting the football.
“I think there’s a mental toughness aspect to it,” Alford said. “I think there’s a pride factor as well. There’s a level of accountability to your teammates, to your position unit, your offensive unit, the entire team. You can’t put the ball in danger. If you keep pounding that point, hopefully it hits home.”
— By Curt Rallo, special correspondent