Notre Dame said goodbye to Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, their two most talented and experienced running backs after last season. And while the depth chart entering the season was filled with question marks, it was also a position group Brian Kelly called one of his most talented.
Whether that was to boost the morale of his troops or not is up for debate. But on paper, there’s a ton to like about the running back depth chart, even if we haven’t seen much of it to start the season.
Of course, the first half of the season wasn’t paced by a rushing explosion. While everybody has waited for a leading man to step forward, it’s been an ensemble cast of characters, with each running back almost type cast to a job by the staff. George Atkinson and Amir Carlisle were given the first chances to win the starting job, until Cam McDaniel stole the crunch time carries. Just as it looked like McDaniel would get his shot, Atkinson broke loose. While freshman Greg Bryant looked like the back of the future on paper, it’s Tarean Folston who’s been given the best crack. And Will Mahone’s strong training camp turned him from afterthought into potential slot receiver, though an ankle injury has slowed him down.
There doesn’t look like a No.1 running back is on the current roster — or at least someone that’s ready and developed enough to take that job and run away with it. But as the ground game becomes a more and more important facet of the Irish offense, finding the production — whoever is running the ball — is key.
George Atkinson — 56 attempts for 323 yards (5.8 ypc) 2 TDs
Cam McDaniel — 63 for 259 yards (4.1 ypc) 2 TD
Amir Carlisle — 38 carries for 178 yards (4.7 ypc)
Tarean Folston — 11 carries for 70 yards (6.3 ypc)
Greg Bryant — 3 carries for 14 yards (4.7 ypc)
Find consistency. There’s some quality control that needs doing in the Irish backfield. With five different runners (four, if Bryant is indeed sidelined indefinitely with knee tendinitis), it’s hard enough to find carries for everybody. But if Atkinson, Carlisle, McDaniel and Folston are all going to get touches, they’ll all need to know how to consistently run behind this offensive line.
The Irish ground game is a fairly simple scheme that relies on running backs reading the Irish’s zone blocking scheme and getting up field. After taking some time to understand what they’ve been seeing, Tony Alford’s troops need to make progress.
Figure out roles. Maybe George Atkinson is the lead back. But on some Saturdays its been Amir Carlisle and others its been Cam McDaniel. And just before Atkinson broke loose against Oklahoma it looked like Tarean Folston was taking the inside track.
There are things each guy in this backfield does well, and it’s clear that Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin have their preferences on what they want to see. If that means Carlisle is the back that’s used to catch the ball, let’s see him do it. If McDaniel is the guy that pilots the four-minute, ice the game offense, keep him doing it. But for this depth chart to thrive, clear roles still need to emerge.
Dominate a game. There’s enough talent in this backfield to dominate a football game. Whether that’s Atkinson ready to break off a big run, McDaniel moving the chains or Carlisle getting out in space, there’s enough here. But now it’s time to put it to action.
Tommy Rees isn’t the type of quarterback that’s going to carry this offense by himself. And if the running backs can step up and play up to their own level, he won’t need to do it.