Michigan State v Notre Dame

Last look back: Running Backs

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With Signing Day a little over two weeks away and spring practice just around the corner, the 2013 season is getting smaller and smaller in our rearview mirror. But before we officially turn the page, it’s appropriate to take one final look back at the Irish’s 9-4 season.

For the next few days, we’ll be looking at each position group, hand out a few awards, take a closer look at the stats, and project what the future looks like. We’ll start with the running back position.

POSITIONAL OVERVIEW

Saying goodbye to Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick was never going to be easy. But there was reason to believe that things would be okay, with Brian Kelly commenting in preseason camp that his depth chart at running back was one of the most talented he’d ever had.

On paper, that was easy to see. Junior George Atkinson was a big play waiting to happen. Cam McDaniel had impressed in a limited role. Amir Carlisle was finally healthy after an ankle injury robbed him of 2012. Will Mahone had done a good job getting on the coaches’ radar. Add in two elite recruits in Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, and the biggest question was how would they divide up the touches.

 

FINAL STATS

GP-GS Att Yards Avg. TDs Long
Cam McDaniel 13-4 152 705 4.6 3 36
George Atkinson III 12-4 93 555 6.0 3 80
Tarean Folston 12-1 88 470 5.3 3 43
Amir Carlisle 13-4 47 204 4.3 0 45
Greg Bryant 3-0 3 14 4.7 0 10

 

 

TOP THREE PERFORMANCES

Bronze: George Atkinson vs. Oklahoma.

A career day for Atkinson with 14 carries for 148 yards and a touchdown. That it happened in a losing effort and after the Irish spotted the Sooners a big lead is the only thing that keeps this from being the top performance of the year. (That and the fact that Atkinson couldn’t build on it.)

Atkinson against the Sooners was the type of back Irish fans always hoped to see. It was one of the three best performances in his career, with his game against Navy in Ireland and the 2012 Blue-Gold game being my two other favorites. He ran decisively, he showed elite speed, and did everything that made Brian Kelly and Tony Alford give him so many chances. It’s the type of performance that an NFL team can use to take a flier on Atkinson in the late rounds of the draft.

Silver: Cam McDaniel vs. BYU. 

The BYU victory was critical for the Irish, getting a much needed eighth victory and closing out Notre Dame’s home schedule with a bang. That the team was able to transform into the ground-and-pound team that racked up 235 rushing yards was a credit to McDaniel’s hard-nosed approach, breaking a 32-yard run on his way to grinding out 117 yards.

McDaniel served as the Irish’s big back this season, not necessarily the best fit for his skills, but the product of opportunity and necessity. Looking bigger than he did in his previous two seasons, McDaniel became the team’s interior runner, a mismatch when you consider Atkinson carries an extra 20 pounds.

Against BYU, McDaniel ran as tough as you could ask. (Just fast-forward to the 3:20 mark if you’d like proof.) A clutch win for a team that came off an absolutely miserable performance.

 

Gold: Tarean Folston vs. Navy. 

Sure, the performance might lack the degree of difficulty, but style points matter. Folston took charge of the Irish ground game, carrying the team down the stretch as the Irish absolutely needed to score touchdowns and pull out a victory against Navy.

After getting just 11 carries through the first seven games, Folston doubled that number when he got 11 rushes against Air Force. That paved the way for his breakthrough performance, and the freshman back more than doubled his yardage output while putting the Irish on his back, a near freshman record for an Irish running back.

As the Irish enter spring ball, Folston fine play down the stretch likely put him in the driver’s seat for 2014. That wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t seize his opportunity against the Midshipmen.

 

PLEASANT SURPRISE 

Tarean Folston. Not bad for a guy that many had forgotten on Signing Day, overshadowed by fellow Floridian Greg Bryant, who had five-stars attached to his recruiting profile. But the staff was always high on Folston, who showed why as he excelled down the stretch and will likely form a dynamic duo with Greg Bryant moving into the future.

 

MILD DISAPPOINTMENT 

Amir Carlisle. Rarely can you see a season turn on a dime, but when Carlisle coughed up the football late in the game against Purdue, we saw the back’s confidence shatter. He wasn’t the same player after, and he became less and less a part of the game plan. After opening the season with an explosive run on the team’s first offensive play, it was downhill. He dropped a few easy passes, struggled to get into open space, and hardly delivered the type of explosive plays that many (read: this writer) expected.

All is certainly not lost for Carlisle. We watched Ben Koyack recover from a dreadful season ruined by confidence issues. Carlisle looked natural and fearless returning kickoffs against Rutgers in the bowl game and made it through the season injury-free, a feat that many worried was possible after a few star-crossed seasons in South Bend.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

With the departure of George Atkinson, it looks like the writing was on the wall that the Irish were planning on going young in the backfield. What other explanation is there for Atkinson’s early entry into the NFL Draft? But don’t think Cam McDaniel will give up his touches without a fight. And Brian Kelly proved he was willing to sacrifice production for consistency, as Theo Riddick took carries from Cierre Wood in 2012.

The Irish ground game won’t even resemble the one we saw this past season, if only because Everett Golson returns. With Greg Bryant getting a mulligan after his season was ended early after a knee injury, there are still plenty of bodies fighting for touches. But expect Carlisle and Mahone to bounce inside and out while the trio of Folston, McDaniel and Bryant battle it out for No. 1 back carries.

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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