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Breaking down 4-0: The running backs

Sep 27, 2012, 11:24 AM EDT

Michigan v Notre Dame Getty Images

Part two in our bye week feature on Notre Dame’s 4-0 start. For more, check out our introduction and the secondary.


On paper, running back seemed like a position of strength. Even though the Irish were saying goodbye to senior Jonas Gray, Notre Dame welcomed back returning rushing leader Cierre Wood for his senior season and had Theo Riddick back at his natural running back position. The Irish also had wildcard sophomore George Atkinson at the position, who was more than impressive during the Blue-Gold game. At 6-foot-1, 215-pounds, Atkinson had the size of a big back, but was one of the fastest players in college football.

With freshman Will Mahone and KeiVarae Russell entering the depth chart, and joined by high profile USC transfer Amir Carlisle, this was a position that could help make the transition to a rookie quarterback much easier.


While the suspensions of Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese stole much of the discussion this offseason, it was only days before the trip to Ireland that Notre Dame announced that starting running back Cierre Wood wouldn’t be traveling to Dublin, as he was suspended two games for a violation of team rules. That put the running game in the hands of Riddick and Atkinson, thinning out the team’s depth while Carlisle recovered slowly from an ankle injury suffered this spring and Russell changed positions.

With junior Cam Roberson going onto a medical hardship scholarship after he was unable to return to form after a devastating knee injury, here’s what the Irish depth chart looks like today.

Cierre Wood, Sr. (served two game suspension, has a fifth-year of eligibility)
Theo Riddick, Sr.
Cam Roberson, Jr. (Medical hardship ended career)
George Atkinson, Soph.
Cam McDaniel, Soph. (Spent spring with cornerbacks, now back on offense.)
KeiVarae Russell, Fr. (Now starting at cornerback)
Will Mahone, Fr.

Nobody saw the suspension of Wood coming. But it’s hard to say he was missed against Navy, when the Irish dominated up front and blew through the Midshipmen with a throw-back running performance.

Since then, it hasn’t been so easy. Wood has slowly worked his way back into the rotation, while averaging 5.6 yards a carry. The staff has relied more on Riddick than anyone else, even if he’s yet to prove he’s an explosive runner and is averaging just 3.8 yards a carry. And Atkinson has gotten lost a bit in the shuffle, too bad considering he’s popped two big runs on his way to averaging 7.7 yards on his 19 carries.


While he didn’t carry the ball down the stretch against Michigan, Cierre Wood probably should have. Rumors of Wood being in the doghouse during the game last Saturday make sense, if only because you’d expect the Irish’s most reliable and best runner to be getting the ball in crunch time.

Looking at the stats through four games shows you something that you probably already noticed: The running game is a work in progress. With a rebuilt right side of the offensive line, both Mike Golic and Christian Lombard have had some noticeable missed blocks, but the statistical drops could be put on a new young quarterback or some high-level defenses.

Here’s where the Irish sit after four games compared to last season:

Rushing Yards Per Game:
2011: 160.38 (55th)
2012: 140.25 (89th)

Yards Per Carry:
2011: 4.82 (26th)
2012: 3.82 (87th)

Rushing Attempts Per Game:
2011: 33.3 (92nd)
2012: 36.7 (77th)

Again, these stats don’t all fall on the offensive line or the young quarterback, and some of the blame can be put on some relatively inexperienced running backs not showing the patience that Wood has after two seasons carrying the starting load. Both Riddick and Atkinson haven’t showed great patience waiting for their blocks to develop, and a look back at some game tape will show some missed opportunities for the running backs to pick up more yardage.


All things considered, it’s been a disappointing start to the season for the running back position. Wood’s suspension threw the natural rhythm of the group off, and it’s been difficult to get all three runners touches and establish a consistent attack, even though the talent is there.

The best friend of a good running game is a dangerous passing attack and Notre Dame certainly hasn’t shown that either. With defenses routinely stacking eight defenders near the line of scrimmage, running the ball will never be easy. But when the Irish do decide to power the offense with the run, they need to do a more efficient job. With a bye week and a chance for Wood to seize more of the carries, expect the Irish ground game to get healthy against Miami.

  1. irishinmich - Sep 27, 2012 at 11:50 AM

    Keith, any word on Amir’s recovery? It’s looking more and more like a Red Shirt is coming. I was excited to see him play this year. Damn that Injury Bug.

    • bernhtp - Sep 27, 2012 at 3:43 PM

      My guess is that while his injury is healed, he still hasn’t completely caught up yet. Given that you have two seniors (Cierre might get/take a fifth) sharing most of the snaps, it would make sense to redshirt him this year unless there are catastrophic injuries among the 2-3 starters and he becomes needed. He’s probably in a situation similar to Collingsworth.

      • domer77blowsgoats - Sep 27, 2012 at 10:10 PM

        CW is a junior

  2. seadomer - Sep 27, 2012 at 11:59 AM

    I really like the idea of having a Jonas Gray type RB.
    Doesn’t need to hurdle anyone, just have to make one guy miss and we would either convert on a 3rd and short or running it in. No 3rd & goal or 4th&goal on the 2yrd line …
    unless Tommy is there to run it in. (slow week)

    • zorichmidriff - Sep 27, 2012 at 1:58 PM

      No doubt. Really miss the Gray/Hughes I’ll-just-carry-the-defense-with-me-into-the-endzone runs.

      • seadomer - Sep 27, 2012 at 2:36 PM

        Yes!! exactly, love the surge at the end.

  3. ndrocks2 - Sep 27, 2012 at 12:00 PM

    Whole offense is anemic and the sooner Wood gets back to the top the better. Atkinson should be more involved as well. Riddick has been here four years and been given every opportunity to play and has not taken advantage of it on a consistent basis. Riddick is very serviceable at running back in a reserve role not a featured back against top teams. They have tried for years to create space for him with short passes and he is spotty at best at catching those passes, in fact McDaniel probably won’t get the chance this year but he very well may be better suited than Riddick at slot.

  4. nudeman - Sep 27, 2012 at 12:09 PM

    This all starts with the offensive line. They’ve been very inconsistent, to put it gently. Have had their moments, most notably the long, game sealing drives against MSU and UM. But for the most part they haven’t exacly opened big holes for the boys.

    One other thing: I like GAIII a lot. Seems to be a hard working guy with unquestionable speed. He’ll have a nice career for ND. But there is something about his running style that has always been unusual, and the other day I saw a poster on another site talk of his “stiff hips”.

    BINGO. Like Michael Floyd. And the antithesis of Rocket.

    All three had/have great straight line speed. Only Rocket was able to make people miss, slashing, cutting and changing direction on a dime.

    So I don’t want to say GAIII is overrated, as he’s a very good RB. But I don’t look at him as the next great ND superstar as some seem to think he’ll be.

    • ndgoldandblue - Sep 27, 2012 at 1:20 PM

      I agree about Atkinson to a certain extent. He and McDaniel seem like very different running backs, and I compare the two since they were part of the same recruiting class. In space, Atkinson is magnificent, but he needs that space to be truly dynamic. He runs very upright, and doesn’t seem to have that quickness to the hole. Atkinson is faster than he is quick, and if you give him space, he will burn you. This is what’s a little disappointing about Atkinson. He showed a lot of toughness and shiftiness in the B/G game, and I thought we were going to see that out of him. Plus, he appeared to run more like a running back in the B/G game (not so upright).

      McDaniel, on the other hand, doesn’t have that top-flight speed that Atkinson has, and he’s not overly shifty, but he does have one quality that could make him valuable on those hard-running days when the offensive line isn’t doing the running backs any favors: He’s a pain in the ass to tackle. Now, I know that high school highlight tapes aren’t the best barometers, and one game against Navy isn’t a big sample size, but the guy looks to be very hard to bring down. In his h.s. highlight vid, many of his rushing touchdowns came after contact, and in the non-touchdown highlights, a defender (or several defenders) had to drag him down instead of tackle him. In the Navy game this year as well, he made several of his runs longer than they should have been because he was such a pain in the ass to get to the ground. He just seems to fight for every inch, and in those hard-sledding days like the game against Michigan, it might be a good idea to get him a few carries.

      • nudeman - Sep 27, 2012 at 2:10 PM

        ND G&B
        Agree on all points.

        I like McDaniel a lot and would love to see him play a little more; but at whose expense?
        He’s just a cut below the other guys, mainly due to size. Next year I could see him becoming the next Robby Toma – overachieving, gritty guy who never drops a ball, throws a key downfield block here and there and just makes plays.

        I think GAIII will end up having a decent career at ND. Maybe even “very good”. But I don’t look at him being a consistent game breaking threat that other teams have to game plan for.

      • c4evr - Sep 27, 2012 at 2:31 PM

        Another vote for more PT for C McDaniel. He put up 6 yards a carry against Navy and has merited at least a handful of carries per game since. He couldn’t do any worse and, in fact, given the O lines issues would be an asset with him being a difficult tackle.

      • nudeman - Sep 27, 2012 at 2:43 PM

        More carries for Cam at whose expense?

        Every game they’ve played except Navy has been tight, and there’s been no oppty to give your 4th RB carries just to keep him fresh, or reward him for being a good guy, or whatever.

        The other thing I suspect about him is that his blocking as a RB (picking up a blitzing 235 lb LB) might be more than he can be expected to handle. Isn’t he around 180?

        I think his future is in the slot.

      • NotreDan - Sep 27, 2012 at 5:49 PM

        and P.S. I think getting the TE’s some more work underneath and mid-range will force opposing LB’s out of the box.

      • ndgoldandblue - Sep 27, 2012 at 7:54 PM

        nude and c4evr, I agree with both of your points (weird). nude is right in that it’s pretty difficult to find opportunities to get your fourth running back carries in a close game, but I think c4evr has a point. It’s not a bad idea to get him a handful of carries, and that’s all I mean: 4 or 5.

        One specific instance immediately comes to mind during the Michigan game. Cierre had carried the ball twice, and then the camera focused in on him and the guy was completely gassed. Then, we gave him the ball again, and he got next to nothing. Kelly could have done a quick switch in between plays when the line was setting up to get McDaniel in there for a run. In a game like last Saturday when it’s against Michigan and during prime time, I don’t think anyone is coming into the game cold. The blood is probably pumping so fast in those guys’ bodies that they could run the length of the football field in a full sprint without even warming up.

      • c4evr - Sep 27, 2012 at 8:44 PM

        Nude, ND B&G, et al,

        I just think the team is lacking a solid downhill runner and, other than Riddick at times, CM seems to provide that toughness. I may be wrong, but it seems a lot of the team’s running plays are hand the ball off, hesitate until runner sees a hole, then hit the hole. What we’re missing the the Jonas Gray bruising type runner. CM seems to be the only guy (so far) that thrives on contact. If nothing else, let him and GAIII split their carries until one separates himself from the other.

      • c4evr - Sep 27, 2012 at 8:54 PM

        BTW, has it crossed anybody else mind to cast Tuitt or Nix as this century’s ‘Refrigerator Perry’??

    • NotreDan - Sep 27, 2012 at 5:47 PM

      Disagree a bit Nude… based on the physical capacity of our line, I think we have to loosen the box with the pass first, then we can run better. I think a good example is those game sealing drives, when the defense is forced to play both run and pass.

      • nudeman - Sep 27, 2012 at 6:08 PM

        Ordinarily I would agree.
        But given that we’ve got a rookie QB, everything possible needs to be done to give him time to throw the ball. Making the D respect the run does that.

        But it seems the coaching staff agrees with you.
        If you look at the Purdue game especially they definitely game out throwing.

  5. hyde - Sep 27, 2012 at 12:21 PM

    Where is the read option? What’s the point of having a mobile QB playing when you don’t…mobilize him. Did you see the big runs Denard Robinson had last week when Michigan ran the read option?

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Sep 27, 2012 at 2:27 PM

      if you saw Chuck Martin’s presser yesterday, he basically said that running with Golson isn’t being implemented right now because he’s being fed the offense slowly. As he grows, they believe that the QB running plays will be inserted.

  6. Tim's Neighbor - Sep 27, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    Cierre had a play in the third quarter where he danced around a little bit. He didn’t really make the defender miss and Cierre didn’t get too far. He also never really went north-south and gave the defender a solid chance of tackling him in the backfield. After that play, he didn’t see the field much.

    Theo has done a much better job of making a move and going forward, minimizing the opportunity to be taken down for a loss. I wonder if they’re happier with Theo considering there is less opportunity to knock him for a loss? With a pretty vanilla offense so far, perhaps they’re more content with” 3.5 yard run, 3.5 yard run, pass” as to the more varied results from Cierre.

    I’d prefer Cierre myself.

    • nudeman - Sep 27, 2012 at 12:48 PM

      I really think that all three – Cierre, Theo and GAIII – are in the “good/not great” category.
      Having said that, all three are good enough to have big games with improved line play. Maybe McDaniel too, although he seems so slightly built.

      On the horizon, ND has some great OL talent, either redshirting or coming in next year; or in the case of Stanley, already playing. Mahone seems to be maybe a little bigger and more of a power back than CW or TR. Same with that kid who committed out of the blue from TX (James?). Muhammed is too small to be anything other than a situational RB.

      IMO, this is OK though, as all are good enough to look studly with decent blocking. And the blocking is on its way

  7. mattnef - Sep 27, 2012 at 2:30 PM

    The one thing missing from the above write up and comments section is the effect of the poor blocking by the WRs and TEs on the running game. Floyd was an incredibly talented receiver but he was also an excellent blocker in the run game. The current group of WRs and TEs (other than Eifert for the most part) are not ceiling the edge and picking off safeties and corners significantly reducing the area for the RBs to operate. I’m sure that WR and TE blocking will be heavily addressed during the bye week.

    • zorichmidriff - Sep 27, 2012 at 2:54 PM

      Absolutely, and for the life of me—at least as far as the TEs go—I cannot fathom why. Look at the size of Eifert and Niklas… They should be steamrolling people.

    • nudeman - Sep 27, 2012 at 4:41 PM

      not “ceiling” the edge?

      Come on

  8. seadomer - Sep 27, 2012 at 2:32 PM

    I did not watch USC/Stanford (but my remote was getting a workout that week) but I will be keeping my eyes on tonight on Stanford, hope the Huskies can keep it close and leave the tree-topping duties to our Irish

  9. footballleprechaun - Sep 30, 2012 at 3:27 PM

    Its time to stop “feeding the offense” to EG and allow him to be the QB hes susposed to be— a D Robinson/Geno Smith type spread running THREAT. He has the speed & arm and we have the receivers/running backs out-of-the backfield and slant personnel to OPEN IT UP!!!!!! Factor that in with the D and we conquer the schedule by instilling a f e a r into opposing def co-ordinators THAT THEY ARE FACING AN OFFENSIVE JUGGERNAUT!!!!!! GO I R I S H !!!

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