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.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”