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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.

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