SOUTH BEND, Ind. – It would be easy for a running back to get lost in Brian Kelly's explosive spread offense.
The scheme made a star out of quarterback Tony Pike when Kelly was at Cincinnati — or at least enough attention to get him an NFL contract. Same for wide receiver Mardy Gilyard. The running backs? Not so much.
Now Kelly and his no-huddle fire drill are at Notre Dame, and one of the guys making it go is — surprise! — running back Armando Allen.
"His talent speaks for itself," Irish quarterback Dayne Crist said Wednesday. "Any time we get him the ball, we know it's a chance for a big play. That's very comforting knowing, as a quarterback, you have that big-play ability with a guy behind you or the guy next to you."
Allen is one of the most versatile backs the Irish have ever had, ranking eighth in career all-purpose yardage (4,017) and first in catches (110) by a running back. He hasn't had much choice, really. Playing his first three years in Charlie Weis' pro-style offense, designed to maximize Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen's skills, Allen had to find other ways to stand out than simply carrying the ball. Despite missing three games with an ankle injury, he led the Irish in rushing last season and was third in all-purpose yards.
So when Kelly arrived, the terminology may have changed, but Allen's approach didn't.
"When it all comes down to it, it's about making plays, going out there, protecting the quarterback — just going out there and having fun," he said. "Knowing that we have great quarterbacks and great receivers, just when the opportunity presents itself, do the best that I can."
Allen has led the Irish (1-2) in rushing in each of the first three games, and all of his numbers are better than they were last season.
He's averaging 84.3 yards per game on the ground (almost 7 yards better than last year), and 26.3 yards passing (2 better). He leads Notre Dame with 126.3 all-purpose yards per game, 25 yards better than his average last season. Overall, he has 253 yards rushing and a score, as well as 79 yards receiving.
"You're definitely paying attention to where he is on the field, especially as you get later into the game," Crist said. "If you can get the ball in a running back's hands, that's what he does best, running after the catch. Getting him the ball in space is something that I will continue to try to do, knowing that the end result coming from it is an explosive play."
But Allen prides himself on being a complete back, and that means blocking.
Though he's only 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds, Allen is one of the biggest watchdogs Crist has. He's constantly studying film of past games, paying particular attention to plays where he got beat and trying to figure out how he could have done better.
"When you look at any offense, the quarterback is really the key to every operation," Allen said. "He's the guy that's going to touch the ball almost every play. ... Dayne is a new quarterback, and I'm just trying to make him as comfortable as possible. "
And Crist, who has been sacked five times in the first three games, appreciates the effort.
"That's exactly why I feel comfortable being able to hang in there in the pocket," Crist said when asked about Allen's ability to pick up the blitz. "I feel very comfortable in all of our protections. Armando knows exactly what he's doing. There's even times where I'll ask him his role as a back, (and) he's spot on.
"He's a huge reason this offense has been able to be so successful through the year," Crist added. "The offensive line has done a great job, but so has our backs. And Armando has spearheaded that."