Notre Dame football: Ex-star Vagas Ferguson weighs in on running game

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

Running the football is as easy as reading the keys.

All it takes is an educated back.

From his perch far from the heat of battle, former Irish star Vagas Ferguson sees a stable of Notre Dame running backs this season who aren't making the grade.

His purpose isn't to criticize, but to lend his expertise.

In his prime (1976-79), Ferguson was a 6-foot-1, 194-pound standout who learned his lessons and applied them every time he carried the ball. He started four games (at fullback) as a freshman, then matured into the role of feature back later in his career.

At the time, Ferguson was the first running back in Notre Dame history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in two consecutive seasons (1,192 in 1978; 1,437 in '79). He finished his career with 3,472 yards and 32 touchdowns. Ferguson was fifth in the 1979 Heisman Trophy voting and had a four-year NFL career.

His credibility is unimpeachable.

The longtime athletic director at Richmond (Ind.) High School, his hometown, Ferguson still follows the Irish closely and is as frustrated as head coach Brian Kelly about the results.

While the Irish offense has averaged about 150 yards a game, the ground assault has been one of the more inconsistent areas this season. It became painfully obvious in the loss to Pitt. Even though Notre Dame led 14-7 at halftime and didn't have its best defensive player — end Stephon Tuitt had been ejected for targeting in the second quarter — it still ran the ball just six times for 18 yards in the final 30 minutes of a 28-21 upset loss.

Will it be better Saturday in the home finale against BYU? Who knows?

With all four backs — George Atkinson, Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston — expected to return next season, along with Greg Bryant, who didn't play in this his freshman season, a long-term solution is necessary.

The 56-year-old Ferguson tries to draw on his experiences to help improve the future of the Irish running game.

"My freshman and sophomore years, my running backs coach was Hank Kuhlmann," Ferguson said. "I think he played for (head coach Dan) Devine in college somewhere.

"We ran the pro offense, with two backs.

"When I came in, my first week or so at camp I was practicing with the defensive backs in the morning and the running backs in the afternoon. I didn't know any better. I was just a freshman. I did what they told me.

"One day Hank came up to me, he had a big (tobacco) chew in his mouth, and kinda growled at me, 'Forget going (to defense), just stay over here.' After that, I was a running back."

Ferguson said ego was never a factor. Playing right away wasn't something he felt strongly about.

"I started the last four games of my freshman year at fullback after Jerome (Heavens) got hurt," Ferguson said. "My job was to just hit somebody, it really didn't matter who.

"Early in my freshman year, I got in several games when we had big leads (the Irish were 9-3 in '76). Getting in those games taught me that the guys on the college level were pretty big and hit pretty hard. That really helped when I had to start late in the season."

After Ferguson had been a contributor to Notre Dame's national championship in 1977, his big break came when Kuhlmann left.

"Hank left before my junior year and Jim Gruden (father of former NFL coach and current TV analyst Jon Gruden) came in," Ferguson said. "He had recruited me when he was at Indiana, so we already had a relationship. After I told him I was going to Notre Dame (in the recruiting process), he said, 'I have a feeling I'll coach you someday.' He must have known something.

"They ran the I-formation at Indiana. That was the new trend. I loved it.

"Junior year, Jim spent every day in practice teaching us how to read a defense — 4-3 or 3-4. The defense determined how and where we would run.

"(Gruden) drilled us, and drilled us, and drilled us. He would set up a defense with (managers) holding dummy bags. We'd get ready to run a play and one of the bags made a sudden move. It was your job to recognize it and react.

"Then, we'd watch films and see those were the moves the ends, tackles and nose guards were making. You knew if they cut one way, you'd cut the other way. The fullback knew who to block.

"When game time came, it was second nature. The key was to know where the defense was going to be.

"If it was a run off tackle, the key would be the defensive end. If it was a run inside, the key would be the nose guard."

Ferguson said the instructions weren't rocket science. Understanding basic concepts went a long way toward getting a grasp on the big picture.

"If I had been taught that scheme right away as a freshman, I think it would have been easy to pick up," Ferguson said. "You don't know anything else; no other bad habits.

"We were going against our first-team defense every day when I was a freshman. We'd get killed."

Some aspects of football don't change from year to year, decade to decade, or era to era. Today's game has a lot of the same concepts Ferguson dealt with more than 30 years ago.

"Reading and understanding the keys is even more important today," he said. "Defenses are bigger and faster. You have to recognize what's happening a lot quicker. But the best way to do it is to know where everybody on the offense — receivers, linemen, everybody — is supposed to be.

"I would love to run in the offenses of today. There's nobody in front of you to get in your way.

"The read(-option) offenses of today are different. They're kinda good and kinda bad. The movement makes it harder to read the keys."

The bad habits of one generation can surface in another.

"I had a problem that I couldn't run in straight lines," Ferguson said.

Sound familiar? That has been, and still is, one of the big knocks on Atkinson.

"Devine was on me all the time about running north and south," Ferguson said. "Once coach Gruden taught me about how to read a defense, it was so much easier to run north and south.

"I think that's a problem with Atkinson now. He's reacting to what he sees.

"In the plays where he scores, he hits the hole and he's gone. The important thing is to get to the open hole. He runs east and west looking for a hole, then he explodes. If he was reading his keys, he can get to the (correct) hole that much quicker and take off.

"I can see that in him. Nobody taught him how to read a defense."

However, in the eyes of the 1979 consensus All-American, that's not an isolated problem.

"(Cam McDaniel) is a really good runner," Ferguson said. "He just runs to the hole. The problem is, there would be a hole next to him that he didn't see. He doesn't look like he's reading the defense. Like George, he's just reacting on pure ability and skills.

"Coach Gruden always said the defensive end, tackles, nose guard — they will tell you where the holes are going to be and it always worked."

Commitment is a big part of the equation, too.

Notre Dame has called 327 passing plays (which includes seven sacks) and 319 running plays. Balance is admirable. However, since the Irish were forced to play this season without dynamic quarterback Everett Golson, leaning a bit heavier on a running game might not have been a bad plan to help Tommy Rees through the rough spots.

"Coach Devine was always committed to the run," Ferguson said. "We weren't going to throw unless we had to. Now, they're throwing so much; and it's not being set up by the run. This team can work with what it's got and still find a way to run the ball."

And when the Irish do run, they have spread the carries around rather than go with a feature back.

"Consistency is so important," Ferguson said. "You need to pick one guy who knows he's the guy to carry the ball. (Devine) always told me, 'You're out there until we have to drag you off the field.'

"There's no consistency now. All four guys are out there pressing to make big plays, because if they don't, they know they will be taken out. That's no way to handle a running game.

"Game awareness is something that was always important to me. The more I played, the more I got a feel for what was going on. On one play, I'd notice that the defense had a tendency to overrun a bit; or have a tendency to do this or that. I'd use that knowledge on my next run. I might see a place where I could cut back because I knew they were going to overrun the play.

"If you're not playing on every down, you don't get a chance to see that.

"It kills me to see one back start to roll, then get taken out. All that momentum just goes away. It doesn't help anyone. You've got four backs and they're going in and out. That's crazy.

"I could care less about keeping everyone happy. I'd tell them right off: 'You all have a role. Your time will come.'

"When I left Notre Dame, they were still running the ball because the guys behind me knew their role and were ready when their opportunity came.

"I think they need to commit to one person.

"They've got too many guys running the ball and they're not able to read the defense.

"With the big linemen they have, there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to run the ball. All you want those guys to do is to hold the block just long enough to get through the hole."

Ferguson thought back to his days as a freshman. He remembered how confused he was about the transition to college in general. Add in different messages being sent and it can become even more perplexing for a youngster.

"When you've got a young back (like Folston), you're hurting his confidence when he has a big game, and then he doesn't get many carries the next," Ferguson said. "He gets 140 (rushing yards against Navy) and is saying, 'OK, I'm ready to go.' Then he gets four carries (for 13 yards against Pitt) the next week and he's not really sure what's going on.

"Give him some carries. Let him get that game awareness early."

Ferguson couldn't resist the temptation to get a little nostalgic.

"I remember my senior year against USC (a 42-23 loss in a 7-4 season)," he said. "First play of the game. I was focused on reading my keys. It was a run off tackle. I ended up right near the left guard. I saw the keys and there was a hole that was wide open.

"I think I ran 79 yards. I spent so much time dodging the safety, that the whole defense finally caught me at the 5-yard line. I didn't have George Atkinson's speed.

"But, the keys were there. It really works."

Quite an endorsement.

Maybe the Irish should give it a try.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com

574-235-6318

Courtesy of Notre Dame, no sales Former Notre Dame running back Vagas Ferguson. Ferguson starred at running back for Notre Dame in the 1970s.