Exhibit A: In four years at LSU, running back Joseph Addai never rushed for 1,000 yards in a single season. He scored 18 career touchdowns. By contrast, eight Bowl Subdivision running backs reached that mark last fall.
Today, Addai is considered one of the most complete running backs in the NFL as a key cog for the Indianapolis Colts.
Exhibit B: After a promising sophomore season that saw him eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, Notre Dame's Ryan Grant was his team's second option his last two years (2003, 2004) on campus. He rushed for just 515 yards as an oft-injured senior and yielded to freshman Darius Walker.
And yet today he is a rich man. This summer, he signed a four-year contract with the Green Bay Packers that could be worth as much as $30 million.
These days, college running backs don't necessarily have to put up staggering yardage totals to secure a future at the next level. And that could be good news for Notre Dame's current trio of tailbacks, who all figure to earn carries in what is being billed at the moment as a running back-by-committee system.
James Aldridge, a junior and the elder statesman of the bunch, says that's just fine with him.
"I'm not complaining," Aldridge said. "I think it's a good situation, an opportunity to keep your legs fresh and just kind of slow down a lot of the wear and tear.
"You have one back who's always in the game and always getting every carry, naturally there is going to be some wear and tear. But with the opportunity of having three backs, it's promoting your offense and being smart."
Aldridge and sophomores Robert Hughes and Armando Allen, all received an introduction to college football last season. Aldridge was the team's leading rusher, carrying the ball 121 times for 463 yards after seeing limited time as a freshman in 2006. Hughes ran for 294 yards on 53 carries. Allen carried 86 times for 348 yards.
Hughes, a 5-foot-11, 237-pound Chicago product who has the lowest center of gravity among the three, came on strongest at the end of the season, stringing together back-to-back 100-yard games. But he did it against two of the weakest defensive teams on Notre Dame's schedule, Duke and Stanford.
The intention of Irish head coach Charlie Weis and offensive coordinator Mike Haywood is to take advantage of the strengths of each of their backs. Aldridge and Hughes are both downhill bruisers, while Allen has faster straight-line speed.
All three were highly recruited coming out of high school. While it's a dilemma that a lot of coaches would love to have, their presence in a crowded backfield raised the possibility that one or more would become disgruntled. At least judging by public statements, that hasn't happened.
"After you get a chance to see these guys play," Aldridge explained, "it's like, 'Wow, these dudes, if they get some carries on the field, they can help out.' You don't have to be a rocket scientist to notice that.
"You see Armando, he's out there flying, let's get him on the field. And you see Rob just blast somebody, let's get him on the field."
Allen said sharing the load isn't anything new.
"We had two backs in my high school," he said. "It was kind of like we split the carries, and that was fine with me, so I'm willing to take on whatever role the coaches have to offer for me.
"I think it's actually beneficial. Having multiple backs instead of one, it's very beneficial. So I think that's a good thing instead of a bad thing."
In 2005 and 2006, Weis' first two seasons at Notre Dame, Walker was unequivocally the top option at running back. So much so, in fact, that Travis Thomas, his primary backup in '05, was moved to linebacker in 2006.
But that was then and this is now. When Walker left unexpectedly after his junior year, landing with the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent, Weis had an opportunity to tinker with his formula.
Weis' willingness to stray from his own stated featured back philosophy may also have its roots in the changing landscape of the league he came from, the NFL. After all, football, as Weis himself has said, is a "copycat" game when it comes to schemes and strategy.
Five years ago, in 2003, there were 13 NFL running backs that carried the ball at least 300 times. Last season, that number slipped to six.
It's not an anomaly. More and more teams at the professional level are using two tailbacks — for example, until he signed with Seattle this offseason, former ND standout Julius Jones surrendered almost all his goal-line opportunities, and eventually his starting position, to Marion Barber in Dallas.
A large reason for the decreased workloads is preserving the health of backs. Over the last decade or so, Atlanta's Jamal Anderson, Denver's Terrell Davis, Seattle's Shaun Alexander and, most recently, Kansas City's Larry Johnson have all broken down, some for good, in the wake of a season of massive carries.
The college level, Weis explained, gives coaches even more of an opportunity to use more backs, for the simple reason that they have more players at their disposal.
In the NFL, teams can carry 53 players on their rosters, but only 45 on their game day active list. In the NCAA Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A), a team can carry 85 scholarship players — along with an unlimited number of walk-ons.
"Now, because you have a larger number of players on your roster, you have more people to choose from," Weis said. "And I kind of like the talent at the position. I don't want to inhibit a good player from getting some playing time."
Of course, there may be drawbacks to a running back-by-committee approach. A lot of running backs like to get into the flow of the game by carrying the ball consistently. Notre Dame, for example, was pretty much unbeatable from 2004-06 whenever Walker had 20 or more carries.
Plus, there is at least some suspicion that when the dust settles, a featured back may emerge after all. Hughes was the man at the end of last season, he received by far the most carries in the spring game in April, and he looked the best of the three at ND's three-hour open practice this fall.
But at least for the time being, Notre Dame hopes that all three of its backs fill a role this fall that allows the offense to best utilize their individual attributes.