Notre Dame v Purdue

How we got here: Running backs


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.

Even amidst chaos, Kelly expecting USC’s best

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rocky Hayes, Blaise Taylor

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired on Monday, with interim head coach Clay Helton taking the reins of the Trojan program during tumultuous times. Helton will be the fourth different USC head coach to face Notre Dame in as many years, illustrative of the chaos that’s shaken up Heritage Hall in the years since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.

All eyes are on the SC program, with heat on athletic director Pat Haden and the ensuing media circus that only Los Angeles can provide. But Brian Kelly doesn’t expect anything but their best when USC boards a plane to take on the Irish in South Bend.

While the majority of Notre Dame’s focus will be inward this week, Kelly did take the time on Sunday and Monday to talk with his team about the changes atop the Trojan program, and how they’ll likely impact the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

“We talked about there would be an interim coach, and what that means,” Kelly said. “Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best. And I just reminded them of that.”

While nobody on this Notre Dame roster has experienced a coaching change, they’ve seen their share of scrutiny. The Irish managed to spring an upset not many saw coming against LSU last year in the Music City Bowl after a humiliating defeat against the Trojans and amidst the chaos of a quarterbacking controversy. And just last week, we saw Charlie Strong’s team spring an upset against arch rival Oklahoma when just about everybody left the Longhorns for dead.

“I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.”

Outside of the head coaching departure, it’s difficult to know if there’ll be any significant difference between a team lead by Sarkisian or the one that Helton will lead into battle. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has been at USC for six years, and has already held the title of interim head coach when he led the Trojans to a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl title after Lane Kiffin was fired and Ed Orgeron left the program after he wasn’t given the full time position.

Helton will likely call plays, a role he partially handled even when Sarkisian was on the sideline. The defense will still be run by Justin Wilcox. And more importantly, the game plan will be executed by a group of players that are among the most talented in the country.

“They have some of the finest athletes in the country. I’ve recruited a lot of them, and they have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride,” Kelly said. “So they will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there is no question about that.”

Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.