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Restocking: Running Backs

Feb 21, 2013, 12:44 PM EDT

Miami v Notre Dame Getty Images

Notre Dame’s 2012 two-deep depth chart will be on display in Indianapolis starting today, with both Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood auditioning for NFL scouts at the annual combine. It’ll be a great opportunity for both former Irish runners to display their diverse skill-sets, something that’ll likely help Riddick and Wood stick on an NFL roster this upcoming season.

For Irish fans, it’ll be a great to see how this duo stacks up against other top backs in the draft. Will Riddick show a top-end speed that many think he lacks? Can Wood — who we already dedicated a few hundred words to — put up the type of numbers that make him one of the draft’s great wildcards, not Darius Walker 2.0?

Either way, Notre Dame will be gearing up for a new era at tailback in 2013, with no established running back waiting in the wings. With spring practice coming sooner than most realize, there’s important work being done in the Gug, where running backs George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle and Will Mahone put in time as they work to determine the pecking order heading into practice.

There are no certainties in this group. For Atkinson, a sense of urgency and some added maturity would blend greatly with his world class speed and excellent size. Can McDaniel show himself to be a true option for the offense, not merely the people’s champ who lights it up during garbage time? Will Carlisle prove to be the explosive big play threat many expected to see last season, until an ankle injury spoiled 2012? And what will come of Mahone, who has already been lapped by two incoming freshman in the minds of many recruitniks?

Let’s take a look back at the past few years of running back recruiting, just to see how we got here:

2009
Theo Riddick — A great senior season ended a four-year career split between WR and RB.
Cierre Wood — Three seasons of above-average production leave many wondering what 2013 could have been.

2010
Cam Roberson — A severe knee injury ended Roberson’s career before it had a chance.

2011
George Atkinson — Home run potential at seven yards a carry. Still, a lost season of production.
Cam McDaniel — Yo-yo’d between CB and RB, McDaniel is a natural in the Irish zone system.

2012
Will Mahone — Redshirted freshman season. Will enter depth chart this spring.
KeiVarae Russell — Switched to defense in fall camp. Started all 13 games at field cornerback.
Amir Carlisle — Transfer from USC was immediately eligible, but an ankle injury ended 2012.

2013
Greg Bryant — A bigger, faster Theo Riddick, Bryant is Kelly’s premiere offensive recruit.
Tarean Folston — A smaller big play threat, Folston was at the top of ND’s recruiting board.

Way too early spring projection

If Brian Kelly is a coach that often takes psychological angles to get his players to perform their best, expect some of that to happen this spring with George Atkinson. After a promising freshman season as an elite kickoff return man, GAIII took a major step backwards, looking tentative and rarely displaying the world class speed that made him one of college football’s fastest men. Rarely has seven-yards a touch looked as anemic as it did in 2012, when Atkinson broke long runs early, but rarely showed the field vision necessary to grind out carries in this offense. Entering his third season of eligibility, the light bulb needs to go on this spring.

Behind Atkinson, the battle for playing time should be fierce, especially before Bryant and Folston hit campus. For McDaniel, belief isn’t a problem. Opportunity has been. Expect this spring to be the chance he’s waited for, and the junior plans on taking advantage of his opening. In Carlisle, the Irish have a true hybrid player, and it’ll be interesting to see if Kelly and Chuck Martin use him as such, after 2012 only saw slot backs touching the football via the run in garbage time. In Mahone, the Irish have a running back that could grow into a power guy, with feet that looked better than expected according to those that watched the freshman practice last season.

The true depth chart won’t likely be revealed until the summer, when Bryant and Folston begin working out with the team. But if you’re looking for either of the freshman to make a run at the starting job, it’d be out of character for this coaching staff, as only KeiVarae Russell — at a position of major need — has arrived in South Bend and stepped into the starting lineup.

  1. nudeman - Feb 21, 2013 at 1:15 PM

    My take:
    Mahone: I like this type of back (big bruiser) a LOT and have always thought when he gets his chance, he’ll be the real deal. Should ultimately be the kind of guy who can take the ball 7 straight times in the 4th qtr of a close game, gain 54 yards and take 6:00 off the clock all by himself. Love those types.

    GAIII: Not sold on him as a #1 RB. Just no fluidity to his style. Open a big hole and he’s gone, but that’s true of me too. Elite speed, and has broken a big one here and there and probably will do so again. But seems out of position at RB. Ideally would be a WR, but supposedly catching the ball ain’t his thing. Interesting comment by Keith about needing maturity. Anyone know what that’s all about?

    Amir: The ultimate X factor. Any skill position guy who gets playing time at USC as a frosh has to have something going for him. But he was supposedly still limping when the Irish were going through their Bowl game practices. Gotta’ wonder if he’ll ever really be 100% again.

    Cam: I love Cam/You love Cam/Everyone loves Cam. But he’ll never see a ton of meaningful time as a RB. Sorry. Great special teamer, occasional change of pace guy in the backfield, probably has a big play or two in him before he’s done at ND. But will never be their every down RB. Ever.

    Folston/Bryant: They sound great. Many think Bryant makes an immediate impact. Barring injuries, I tend to doubt it. 2014 and beyond is their time.

    • bernhtp - Feb 21, 2013 at 4:12 PM

      What do you hear about Amir’s limp?

      Last word we publicly heard about Amir (I think) was late in the season from Kelly. He said that Amir’s broken ankle was long recovered but the nerve damage was just now (then) getting to 100% healed. He was being cleared for practice, but the time needed to get into playing shape and the late stage of the season made sense for him to sit the rest of the year out.

      Do you think this was not the whole truth? Was the limp the unhealed ankle injury or something possibly new from having practiced in December?

      It would be great to have a 100% Amir Carlisle. He is small – looks smaller to me than McDaniel, especially in weight – but he a extremely quick, elusive, decisive/instinctive, gets low, and really squirts through the tiniest of holes (don’t get excited, Dick). None of these characteristics apply to GA3. Amir not only can make the big play, but will also make lots of moderate gains when little is there and where GA3 would have been tackled for a loss as he spins around in indecision.

      • nudeman - Feb 21, 2013 at 5:32 PM

        On another board when the Irish were in their bowl game practice, there was a poster who was at one of the practices where part of it was open to the public (primarily students), He had a few very normal observations about the team and players, but what specifically caught my attention was that he wrote (and this is almost verbatim) “Amir Carlisle had a noticeable limp”. Definitely used the word “noticeable”.

        That’s the extent of my “inside info”. The poster was level headed and not a bomb thrower and I have no reason to disbelieve him. He had no agenda.

        This was probably about December 15th – 20th or so. By the time they tee it up for the Spring (April 1st?) that will be another 3.5 months of treatment, rest and healing. And also nerve regeneration I suppose, as I’ve seen in several places he had nerve damage.

        I suppose it’s possible that a) he’s 100% healed by then; or b) it’s still nagging him.

        I’m no doctor but if the aswer is “b” then that’s a red flag, as that would be an awfully long time for him not to have healed fully.

      • idratherbeinsouthbend - Feb 21, 2013 at 5:44 PM

        If there are nerve problems, the time table for 100% healthy is a huge question mark. Nerve tissue is the slowest growing tissue in the human body.

        Doctor’s typically give a hugely vague response when asked about recovery of nerve damage. There are instances where the nerve never grows back.

        I think the spring game will tell the whole story regarding his health. And I, for one, want to see this horse run.

      • bernhtp - Feb 22, 2013 at 9:24 AM

        As an FYI, here is the article with Kelly’s statements about Amir:

        http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-10-04/sports/chi-notre-dame-to-redshirt-usc-transfer-carlisle-20121004_1_amir-carlisle-nerve-damage-ankle

  2. yogihilt - Feb 21, 2013 at 1:17 PM

    Looks like Bryant has the chance to ‘grab the bull by the horns’ eventually, and re-write some records.

  3. dudeacow - Feb 21, 2013 at 1:31 PM

    I really dislike it when people preview the 2013 RB corps and they say that it will be GA3’s job with Bryant making an immediate impact. For one, the only time GA3 seemed like a starting back was in the spring game against the 2nd team defense. I actually think that Carlisle is our best back due to him averaging 5.4 yards a carry as a frosh, but I think he will never be able to stay healthy for a whole season. Last, Cam and Mahone are more experienced than Bryant, so I think they will get more touches than him. And besides, looking at his film, I don’t see anything that special about him. Besides Bryant’s 2011 16.5 ypc, Folston looks SO much better than him. Kinda like Wood 3.0.

    • oldschoollyons - Feb 21, 2013 at 2:09 PM

      Well, dudeacow, you make excellent points. Many people like to muse about “immediate impact” freshmen. I wonder. Kelly has said that Bryant and Folston have among the best chances to make an early impact. However, it takes time to adjust to school and to the football program. The guys who have an edge in experience, like Cam and even Mahone, have the advantage over them, certainly initially.

      In addition, I share your question as to whether Bryant peaked in his junior year. I see Folston as neck-and-neck with him.

      Carlyle is talented but has to be considered frail. He’s had two real injuries in two years, and the last one was without even being hit. He suffered lingering nerve damage from it. I’d love to see him play, but nerve damage does not bode well for him.

      GA3 was shocking to me last year. Except for his breakaway speed (as you said, against weak run defenses), he did not look like a featured back. He does run like a receiver, not like a back. He showed great potential as a freshman; so maybe he’ll take hold this year. That is far from guaranteed, though.

      I am a curmudgeon by nature and preference. That said, I think running back is a problem area for us this year. Our backfield looks to me like a pitching staff full of question marks in Spring training. When there are that many iffy pitchers, the staff usually ends up breaking down or getting shelled.

      I do like the way Cam runs. He’s small, so maybe he can’t be the featured back. But I’d like to see what he can do with ten carries a game.

      • dudeacow - Feb 21, 2013 at 2:43 PM

        I don’t see running back as a problem next year. We have loads of good running backs. I just want to see a starter emerge. One that is looked at as elite and a step ahead over our other backs

      • nudeman - Feb 21, 2013 at 3:04 PM

        Disagree completely about RB being a “problem”.

        New, untested talent for sure, but these are not weak guys. Mahone is a big boy, Carlisle if healthy might be very, very good (BIG “if” there), and Folston and Bryant can play if pressed. Cam can even carry 5-10 times a game if needed.

        I repeat that GAIII is out of position.
        He only seems to play well in space which just screams “WR”.
        Why not a crash course for him on how to catch a football?

      • mtflsmitty - Feb 22, 2013 at 2:28 AM

        I’ve seen Bryant’s film on YouTube. I was not blown away. But my thinking is this. If you want an expert opinion on database marketing, predictive analytics, or multi-channel marketing customer engagement strategies I am your guy. But I don’t know crap about evaluating 17 yo RB talent.

        Given ND recruiters along with experts from every other leading football school, and experts from all the recruiting sites say he’s a special talent, I trust that they all might have some experience that qualifies them in ways that still elude my keen YouTube-trained eye.

    • dudeacow - Feb 21, 2013 at 2:52 PM

      My bad, I just found out that Carlisle averaged 6.2 ypc. I don’t know how I got 5.4.

  4. cameronemclaughlin - Feb 21, 2013 at 2:00 PM

    GAIII will never be our featured back. As Nude states, he’s great against inferior opponents when our line creates a clear path for him, or on the well-run misdirection that gives him an open field. But he lacks the three things Cam has that would lead me to start McDaniel over George every week: quickness, agility and toughness (and I’d throw vision in there to a lesser extent). Atkinson has zero cutback ability. When he’s forced to slow or change direction, it’s over.

    That’s not to say I think McDaniel will start. At least one of Mahone, Carlyle, Folston and Bryant will pass Cam and George on the depth chart. Likely more than one.

    If GAIII is our starting tailback, we’re in trouble.

    • 808raiderinparadise - Feb 21, 2013 at 5:56 PM

      You guys act as if a player never grows … or improves ??? … Everyone sees the obvious in GAIII, so do you think Kelly and Alford and Co. don’t ??? He will get work on his style, he will improve, everydown back? idk but give him a chance.

      • nudeman - Feb 21, 2013 at 11:07 PM

        The thing is we’re talking running STYLE here. He can and will make improvements but a guy who’s almost 21 and has limited ability to cut and make people miss … Barry Sanders ain’t walkin’ through that door any time soon. Neither is Gayle Sayers.

        The real answer here is to split him out and get him the ball in space. If he doesn’t have great hands then they should have him catching 100+ balls/day NOW from the Juggs machine.

      • idratherbeinsouthbend - Feb 22, 2013 at 2:17 AM

        I’m with you 808, just look back at the past few years of RBs. Cierre had to LEARN to run in this offense and does anybody remember a kid named Jonas Gray? He went from being an underperforming one-trick pony to a 7 yds per carry beast.

      • 808raiderinparadise - Feb 22, 2013 at 3:46 PM

        So Gale Sayers & Barry Sanders went to ND ???

        I would compare his body type to Ryan Grant and his running style to the Rocket lol

        …for sake of using ND players in a ND blog. Lets keep it all irish alllll day son.

        GAIII is diff, but every backfield should varied … with that said I think he will get a nice amount of the touches from RB position, he knows he is in a good position to have a great oppurtunity to showcase himself, I’m sure the kid is lifting hard and focused on his skill position drills.

        Sure he is a long stride back, sure he is upright, and sure he has shown litttle power once hit, but players grow, mature and play to their strenghts …. in Kelly’s offense a power back is a luxury, running out of singleback and shotgun more so demands plant and go runners like Ceirre Wood, Riddick was great but honestly Cierre was a back breaker with big play ability. GAII can be the same and he is on eof th efastest players in the country in open space.

    • mtflsmitty - Feb 22, 2013 at 2:40 AM

      I agree GAIIIs running style is not as fluid as we have come to expect from other elite d1 RBs. But the idea that he cannot cut back is patently false. His short TD on an end around in the middle of the season required a 90 degree cut be made from a near dead sprint. I can recall at least one other long run early in the season where he read the zone blocking perfectly, cut north, and hit the burners.

      I see that now that its clear Bobby Elliot is not responding to Nude’s letter writing campaign to have Hendrix moved to safety, he’s got a new pet project. I can’t wait for the next 3-6 month drum beat of “Move GAIII to WR”.

      808, I completely agree with you post re growth and development.

      • nudeman - Feb 22, 2013 at 10:08 AM

        smitty
        Ha ha. Make fun of that all you want, but the fact is that Hendrix, more than any other player on the team is a highly talented guy without a position.

        Yes, he’ll be listed on the QB depth chart as 3 or 4 … doesn’t matter. Barring simultaneous injuries to Golson, Rees and Kiel, he is never going to see the field as a QB for ND in anything other than garbage time.

        Never. His career as an ND QB is over, basically.

        When I first suggested a position switch I was buried with smartass responses like “Who the fu** are YOU??? This kid is GREAT!!!”

        No he isn’t. In fact I wouldn’t call him even “good” as a QB at this level. And he’s totally had his chances to grab the #1 job but has pretty much blown it with his skittishness in the pocket and poor down field vision.

        I was right in that there is no fit for him at QB. I was probably wrong in that there is no obvious other position for him at this level. Fast, but not fast enough for safety or RB. Big but prob not big enough for LB or TE.

        So he’s a man without a country, just as I foresaw.

  5. brendanfitzgibbons - Feb 21, 2013 at 2:33 PM

    I hear you guys on GA3, but Im not ready to give up on him. I just went back and watched some of his runs last year and at times, he looked like our fastest running back, and that kind of speed needs to be on the field. People also had doubts about Theo and Cierre at times. But I totally agree with the enthusiasm about Amir, Cam, and Mahone. I think with Folston and Bryant coming in, this makes the running backs the most exciting position to watch this year. The talent at that position is as good as any team in the country.

  6. gtizzo - Feb 21, 2013 at 2:35 PM

    Why do we need a number 1 back? Why can’t situation determine who enters the game? First Bryant and Folston sit a year. Second who is the best at blitz pick up? Who can actually throw some kind of block? That guy is who plays on every down and takes some carries. When we need change of pace we throw in GAIII for a speed back who can break the big gain. When ND is inside the 20 and we need to pound it into the end zone in comes Mahone. Personally any player (running back, receiver, tight end) that can make ND better in the red zone has my support. Something else to consider for next season…how much running does Golson do? Just a thought.

    • stedward - Feb 21, 2013 at 4:35 PM

      I agree you don’t want to lean on one guy. I think you need to have at least two guys that are going to see significant carries just from a longevity standpoint. With Kelly’s offense, he wants a RB that can do everything. Obviously there will be a difference between running style or receiving ability but you don’t want to get predictable with the types of plays that are called with each back.

  7. bearcatirishfan - Feb 21, 2013 at 5:48 PM

    Nude are You sure that it wasn’t just Amir getting his swagger back? :-) that can look like a limp ya know.

    • nudeman - Feb 21, 2013 at 11:09 PM

      Good point. Hadn’t thought of that

  8. padomer - Feb 21, 2013 at 9:10 PM

    hey guys! hows it goin? Few thoughts on the RB situation. First and foremost, it is impossible to project the unknowns because, we dont know what theyre capable of. However, while GAIII looked tentative, indecisive, and displayed a relatively disappointing amount of power due to his size (biggest back on the team?)…i argue that he simply doesn’t have a large enough sample size to completely disregard him. 5-7 carries a game a hardly enough to tell if a running back has it or not. In fact, I’m hoping he wins the job and gets somewhere in the 20-25 carries range. If he is unsuccessful with that kind of opportunity, I’d gladly eat crow. In the Weis era, the biggest challenge was getting true ATH, and closing the gap with USC. I believe GAIII is that type of USC athlete (ca. 2005) who just hasn’t gotten a legitimate chance yet. Perhaps there is something to Keith’s assertion about maturity.

    I was disappointed this year and may be in the minority about the riddick/wood timeshare. I was consistently waiting for GAIII’s role to expand and I am still waiting to this day. The sole reason for this, and granted it was navy, but the way in which he side-stepped and effortlessly passed each Admiral defender as if he wasn’t even close to top speed. I thought we had Darren McFadden on the team. Finally, may the best man win, as I believe we have the luxury of excellent competition, and the player emerging from the impressive pack will have certainly earned it. Only problem is is that it seems, on paper, that we have so many talented backs that some potential can be wasted. For sake of argument, suppose GAIII is Darren McFadden esque, we wasted him this year with the riddick/wood timeshare…albeit both were extremely productive and ran with tremendous heart all year.

    P.S. I hate the committee approach. Find a spellback, but most importantly find a workhorse. Hopefully we find that this year! Go Irish!

    • nudeman - Feb 21, 2013 at 9:26 PM

      GAIII – I love the guy because of his speed and I also remember what a badass his dad was with the Raiders. Seems cool to me that he chose to come to ND when USC or Cal would have been a much easier choice.

      But despite the love, he just does not look like a RB to me. There’s very little juke to his style; seems very stiff and runs high.

      There might come a game or two when he gets 20-25 carries, but it will be an anomaly. Teach him how to catch the football, split him out and get the ball to him in space. Now THAT would be a dangerous way to use the guy.

      • yogihilt - Feb 22, 2013 at 8:31 AM

        His (GAlll) style of running is one dimensional; one cut and go. He does not have the ability to stop, cut, get back up to almost full speed in one step or two. And a back has to do that sometimes 2 or 3 times a run.
        Nude is right, he’s a WR at best, fly patterns, posts, hooks; pre-determined routes. There are an elite few in the run game that can ‘see’ the field, react in a flash, and maneuver again at top speed, combined with the innate ability to stop, cut again, and power their way back to top speed over and over again. That’s why the elite RB is so hard to find. But, not to have ‘it’, eliminates many, and him, from the equation. And it’s too late for someone to learn at 21, if there is not at least a few of those qualities present.
        One can count on their hands and toes those in history who possess all the requisite RB skills. But you must have at least a few to be good, and Georgie 3 Stix does not.
        Let the competition begin.

      • mtflsmitty - Feb 22, 2013 at 9:49 PM

        While I do enjoy teasing you, I will admit that it would be great to see him operating in chunks of field not already occupied by eight defenders. I recall midway through last year reading a story that he was putting a ton of work in after practice catching balls.

        That said, “stiff and runs high” sounds a bit like E. Dickerson, no?

        I think padomer makes some good points. If BK and the boys can develop his running skills it would be amazing to see him touch the ball 20+ times a game. Lets see how he develops this spring and summer.

    • dmac4real - Feb 21, 2013 at 10:46 PM

      Not against too much of what you said here. I dont totally agree with the assessment your assessment, but i would agree people are being too rough on him.

      Also, the point on GAIII being a USC type athlete, i cant agree with that. Guys that USC has had (For modern sake: Lee, Woods, and Agholor) made immediate impacts. It was not a wait an see thing like we have with GaIII or Davonte Neal. So while we have surpassed them in the trenches, i would argue we are still lacking in the skill department…

      • nudeman - Feb 21, 2013 at 11:14 PM

        Reminds me … I haven’t mentioned recently that I friggin’ hate USC, have I?

        Wow … feel much better now

      • idratherbeinsouthbend - Feb 22, 2013 at 2:18 AM

        And you haven’t spewed any hate on TR lately either. So that’s……………….weird

      • nudeman - Feb 22, 2013 at 10:14 AM

        I’m one TR throw into quad coverage in the Spring game from blowing another TR gasket.

        I can get it back. I promise.

  9. papadec - Feb 21, 2013 at 11:23 PM

    nude – I gave up hating uscum for Lent. If you believe that – I have some waterfront property west of Miami you might be interested in.

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Feb 22, 2013 at 2:20 AM

      How much do you want for it? I just inherited a large stack of three dollar bills and chuckEcheese coins.

      • papadec - Feb 22, 2013 at 3:26 AM

        idrather – hmmmmmmmmmm large stack you say? How many coins?

  10. ekalderf - Feb 22, 2013 at 7:51 AM

    Yawn, any of these guys will be made by the quality and depth of our O line–which to me is a much bigger concern. The line play was decent last year, but was inconsistent and rarely dominate. If the front 5 can’t block, who gets the handoff won’t matter.

  11. kiopta1 - Feb 22, 2013 at 9:48 AM

    Bryant, Folston, Hood, maybe Michel. That’s a nice backfield.

  12. ajw21 - Feb 22, 2013 at 10:48 AM

    TR is almost as done as Hendrix. Gunner will be #2 next year. The only way TR plays in a game that matters is if Golson gets hurt in one of the first 4 games in a high pressure situation(Purdue last yr) where TR might go in ahead of Gunner due to experience. Hopefully his knowledge & experience will help Golson & Gunner but I don’t see him getting much PT.
    Go Irish!

  13. padomer - Feb 22, 2013 at 5:55 PM

    Yea back to the GAIII thing again, I just feel like he’s te most dynamic player on the team and hasn’t had enough touches to prove it. When he was a freshman, ndnation collectively thought dang, we have someone special here. And then last year his role consisted of a few carries here and there, and teams circled him when he entered because they knew some kind of gimmick was about to happen. If he was better than the riddick-wood duo, he wouldn’t have supplanted them anyway because the both of them were both pretty darn good, and most importantly, experienced. As for high running style, he is a tall dude and many if not all tall rbs run that way (AD, b Jacobs, even Darren macfadden). I don’t think that is his biggest problemo, ball security perhaps, but when you move as fast as he does I don’t care if he did a quasi modo hop. I guess my point is that he, in my eyes, has the most explosiveness-potential out of all our skill players, and I think it’d be a waste to see him a part of a committee that nets him 10 touches per game. That said if these Florida recruits are as good as hyped as well as Carlisle, then by all means, whatever is best for the team. I’d just like to see GAIII get an extended look.

    The WR move mentioned earlier is intriguing but I feel would it would be too long of a transition wasting another year of his raw abilities.

    P.s. liked the mahone YouTube a lot! Had a lot more speed than I thought he would!
    Go irish!

  14. padomer - Feb 22, 2013 at 5:59 PM

    What is your guys take on the rb committee approach? I personally hate it. Understand the logic of keepin guys fresh but it seems to me that the rb breed relies on rhythm n flow of the game. The great ones get better as the game progresses. Suppose we do have an nfl caliber rb on the team…I shudder to think of a 55-45 split

  15. padomer - Feb 22, 2013 at 6:02 PM

    Yea great point ekalderf

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