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How we got here: Running backs

Oct 12, 2013, 12:44 AM EDT

Notre Dame v Purdue Getty Images

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.

  1. dickasman - Oct 12, 2013 at 2:11 AM

    We didn’t get too far here

  2. dickasman - Oct 12, 2013 at 2:17 AM

    I’m glad Keith is doing this but basically, you can point to every position and say we dropped off significantly other than OL. A lot of room for improvement. A lot to be desired everywhere.

  3. jerseyshorendfan1 - Oct 12, 2013 at 2:37 AM

    Please pick a horse and ride him. As someone (can’t recall who) previously pointed out, running backs are the kind of skill player that needs to find a groove. This running back by committee doesn’t permit that to happen.

    • yogihilt - Oct 12, 2013 at 8:13 AM

      Amen, my Jersey brother. Show me any team, pro, college or HS that uses more than a 2 man with the majority of carries. And in the 2 man, one is the horse.

  4. yaketyyacc - Oct 12, 2013 at 6:54 AM

    I like the multiple running backs in an offensive game plan. the old thinking is to have one good back develop into a rhythm and pound the defense. however, the defense also gets used to that rhythm, and adjusts accordingly. but with several backs, who possess different speeds cuts and lateral moves, the defenses are kept off balance. we need to have more imaginative plays that use the best qualities of each back, and to think of a two quarterback backfield. everyone know that if Hendrix comes onto the game, he will run or option, and when rees is in he will handoff or throw. ah, but if rees and Hendrix are in with a running back, six options are available. you may have a good defense, but you cannot defend against six options, and then, substituting other backs. man what fun.

    • charlie617 - Oct 12, 2013 at 10:02 AM

      I agree with much of what you say here. But this season, rather than keeping defenses off-balance, we’ve just been tipping them off as to what kind of play we are likely to run. It’s like the Hendrix example you used: if GAIII is in the game, it’s more likely to be a shovel-pitch to the outside; if Cam is in the game, it’s more likely to be a run between the tackles. Basically, I just don’t think that they’re going to use a full playbook with each of our five (now four?) backs, which is how we would really keep defenses guessing.

      Maybe this is just Kelly/Martin calling plays the way they think they have to in order to win. But I think it’s really hurt us this year that we don’t have a do-everything back like Theo Riddick. Riddick may not have been as talented as GAIII or Carlisle, but he was a much better all-around running back.

    • ctfivula - Oct 14, 2013 at 12:56 PM

      I do think the best rushing performances of the year for the Irish have come when one back took over the bulk of the carries with another giving the change of pace you speak about. I don’t like the idea of just riding one back either. I would like to see two three tops in the game day rotation. I do agree that the play calling is not very imaginative at all. Quite predictable to say the least. I like the Hendrix Rees option you mention. I have said in the past that I would like to see two backs in the backfield when they go to the pistol one behind and one beside, for the same reason you mention bringing in Hendrix with Rees. Options!

  5. loadofwash - Oct 12, 2013 at 9:30 AM

    In an offence that ranks 86, who cares?

    • 1historian - Oct 12, 2013 at 9:33 AM

      Your spelling needs some work but you do make a good point.

    • papadec - Oct 12, 2013 at 3:04 PM

      load – I guess you do – or why would you spend time at this site?

  6. yaketyyacc - Oct 12, 2013 at 9:49 AM

    load, what difference where you rank. to paraphrase Fiddler on the Roof, even a poor 86th is entitled to have fun.

  7. jammers11 - Oct 12, 2013 at 10:44 AM

    Kelly needs to play this kid Folston more. He’s the best pure RB Notre Dame has yet he didn’t play a single down against Arizona State. He knows how to hit the hole and read his blockers and is more then quick enough to hit the hole and he can run with power too. GA3 ins’t quick to the hole and can’t read his blocks.

    • ndnapa - Oct 12, 2013 at 12:11 PM

      Agree Folston will have a great 2nd half of the year. It would be good to get him involved in the passing game. I think we’ll see a lot more of the 2-TE sets, and after the USC game I expect the run pass % to be close to 50-50.

      4-2 is about where we thought we would be, right? I think the best we could have expected was 5-1, but without your starting QB, that wasn’t likely.

    • wisner74 - Oct 12, 2013 at 12:20 PM

      Can he be relied on to pick up a blitz? That seems to be the issue that limits a lot of young running backs’ playing time.

      • ibleedirish - Oct 14, 2013 at 9:10 AM

        Can GAIII?

  8. tony34343434 - Oct 12, 2013 at 11:51 AM

    i do not love any of the three running backs we start. I know everyone loves cam because he was bloody and kept playing but Kelly better play Bryant before he leaves. Cant always spit in these 5 star kids faces. Or red shirt him, having him on the bench does nothing for us. GO IRISH!

  9. wisner74 - Oct 12, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    I think Kelly is doing the best he can with this ensemble, because as of now there is no clear number one runner. The trick is to have the right guy in at the right time, although that does lead to some predictability.

    If Cam McDaniel had been in on the first play of the second half against OU, it’s very doubtful he’d have been able to go 80 yds for the TD the way GA did. GA was the right guy there.

    On the other hand, for an important 3rd and 1 against ASU, GA spit the bit and refused to stick his nose into the line despite his 220 lbs. and the fact we only needed 1 yard. He did a little dance in the backfield and actually lost yadage.

    GA was the wrong guy there. CM would certainly have plowed ahead. He may not have gotten it, but it was what the situation called far.

  10. getsome99 - Oct 12, 2013 at 3:36 PM

    Anybody catch the UGA-Mizzou game? Another overrated SEC team taken down by a former BIG 12 bottom feeder.

  11. jem5b - Oct 12, 2013 at 3:49 PM

    Texas just dominated OU. They ran 59 running plays out of a total of 81.
    Gee, why didn’t Kelly think of that? ND outweighed the OU line by 30lbs. per man. Kell’s starting to remind me of CW, way too smart for his own good.

    • nudeman - Oct 12, 2013 at 4:08 PM

      I hate to say I agree, but I agree on the “too smart for his own good” bit.
      Several times this year he’s abandoned the running game when it made no sense. OK was a great example, as you pointed out. But nothing was worse than the UM game.

      I guess running the ball isn’t sexy enough for him and doesn’t let him showcase his brilliance as a state of the art passing game guru. The good outweighs the bad with BK, substantially, but this is an area on the wrong side of the checklist. .

      • wisner74 - Oct 12, 2013 at 5:58 PM

        The Irish were much more successful against OU on the ground than through the air: 29 rushes for 220 yards; 25 pass attempts for 104 yards. Who knows? . . . There may have been more running in the original game plan, but getting behind so early could have changed that.

    • wisner74 - Oct 12, 2013 at 6:00 PM

      Kelly is an infinitely better coach of college football than Weis is. CW needs to go back to the NFL as a coordinator.

    • goirishgo - Oct 12, 2013 at 6:02 PM

      I’m normally reluctant to criticize coaches that clearly know more than me but my single biggest frustration of the year is underutilization of the run.

      I believe the OL is much better than they’re given credit for. And we’ve got four good backs. And we need to take some of the load off Rees. And we need to keep the defense off the field. And…and…and.

      Run the ball!

    • ctfivula - Oct 14, 2013 at 1:22 PM

      yes thank you finally someone else to agree with

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