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Last look back: Running Backs

Jan 20, 2014, 2:44 PM EDT

Michigan State v Notre Dame Getty Images

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.


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.



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




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.



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.



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.



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.

  1. NotreDan - Jan 20, 2014 at 3:17 PM

    The natives are bored I think.

    Good article, let’s talk about football.

    • dickasman - Jan 20, 2014 at 3:24 PM

      Barring suspension/transfer we should be ok here. Break a leg as they say

    • dickasman - Jan 20, 2014 at 3:31 PM

      Dan speaking of boredom, that’s why there are many football/workout/cheerleader pornos online. They make a killing during offseason.

  2. NotreDan - Jan 20, 2014 at 3:18 PM

    The off-season is so damn long.

    Any word on the OC – QB coaches decision? It feels like it’s taking a long time, even with the ND vetting process.

    • dickasman - Jan 20, 2014 at 3:23 PM

      Everybody got something wrong these days. They’re probably busy reviewing the 235784224678644 twatter/Facebook comments.

      If the guys catholic, half brain and republican then hire him. Prolly better than most.

  3. tony34343434 - Jan 20, 2014 at 6:02 PM

    Give the ball the Bryant! Early and Often!!!

  4. mayesdays - Jan 20, 2014 at 6:27 PM

    Anyone like to see the 2014 offense ran similar to Auburn of 2013? Auburn ran an extremely fast passed offense and really wore out their opponents. There is no reason with EG,MZ, and all the RBs we have that the Irish can’t do the same. However, I would argue that ND has more talented receivers and tight ends. So if they wanted to throw it down field not a problem. Marshall was really limited on his throwing ability and I think EG doesn’t have that problem. The off season is entirely too long.

    • ndfenian - Jan 20, 2014 at 6:51 PM

      We’re certainly not going to see Auburn’s zone-read/wishbone offense, or whatever it is, but I would sure like to see the running lanes they had, and the misdirection. Surely ND can do more with guys in the slot: jet-sweeps, motioning guys in to create a two-back look.

      The running game was a major disappointment this year. I guess I will give Kelly and Hiestand a pass due to not having Golson or a mobile QB. But with the talented offensive line and running backs we have returning, along with Golson, there will be no excuses if the running game tanks.

      • mayesdays - Jan 20, 2014 at 8:02 PM

        Yeah I agree. You would think they can pick up the tempo at the very least. All this competition should bring out some good battles this spring and on into the fall.

  5. italianirish - Jan 20, 2014 at 6:57 PM

    For old time’s sake:

  6. oldschoollyons - Jan 20, 2014 at 7:58 PM

    If only we COULD have an offense as good as Auburn’s. As noted, Auburn ran misdirection beautifully. It also ran plays in sequences with one play leading to another that set up the third. Needless to say, Auburn’s game-planning and play-calling were also good. Other than — conceivably — misdirection, it is hard to see where those other things will come from for ND since Kelly will be calling the plays and will have a major role in shaping the offense, planning strategy and making the game plans.

    To have a much better offense, at least one of two things has to happen: Either Denbrock will somehow improve the offense or, as he predicted, next season Kelly “will be smart again.” We will have to hope one of those things happens. Of course, unless you are very rich, based on what we’ve seen so far, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to bet the ranch on it.

    • ndfenian - Jan 20, 2014 at 8:36 PM

      To Kelly’s credit, I did like seeing the two-back looks they created in the Pinstripe Bowl by motioning in T.J. Jones. On the One Foot Down blog, they pointed out that Jones’ touchdown TD was actually accomplished via a non-spread formation. They had two tight ends in the game, motioned Jones in, and made McDaniel the lead-blocker. What a brilliant idea, a lead-blocker! I hope to see much more of this next year. I also look forward to the return of the option next year. Zone-read, speed option, whatever it is, bring the option back.

      I do wonder sometimes if the zone-based blocking schemes for the offensive line make for a more finesse-style scheme. Or if finesse is not the right word, maybe that sort of blocking is more difficult to accomplish than simply hat on hat, follow the lead blocker, Stanford-style, Alabama-style.

  7. ndfenian - Jan 20, 2014 at 8:27 PM

    In the midst of these cold, dark and dreary off-season days, we should all make a pact, right here, that we will accept no excuses next year if the running game is weak. Imagine the excuses next year from fans: “we lost Martin and Watt, the offensive line is a year away from greatness”, or worse, “they’re still stacking the box against us!”. I never want to hear that last one again..

    I do expect the running game to take off next year, but I will accept no excuses if it doesn’t!

    • mayesdays - Jan 20, 2014 at 8:52 PM

      Hell they used 4 newcomers on the o-line last year if you count Martin at center. I don’t see that being a weakness.

    • bernhtp - Jan 21, 2014 at 6:14 PM

      There are many excuses, er, reasons I would accept such as seven touchdowns per game through the air. I don’t have a preconceived notion of what the Irish need to do to succeed.

  8. mtflsmitty - Jan 20, 2014 at 8:57 PM

    McDaniel: B
    Because there was so much unfounded pro-McDaniel hype in the 2013 preseason I took the opposite side and was not an early adopter. But I have to say he was very productive, consistent and had a few great runs. He had a couple surprising jock-dropping moves that showed amazing shiftiness. Turns out the optimism so many of you had was justly placed on the Texan. Or maybe running through that stripping machine backward knocked some moves into him.

    GA3: C-
    I really felt like the conventional wisdom on George was unfair: he’s soft, fast, but belongs on a track – not a football field. He did get better as the year wore on. But GA3 had every opportunity to accelerate his performance over his three years. But never did. He strikes me as the anti-Cam. Too reliant on God-given talent; and not nearly coach able enough.

    Amir: N/A
    I hesitate to give a grade here. But something tells me BK sees something in his attitude or mental toughness that may prevent him from ever developing into the player he could have been. I hope I’m wrong.

    Mr. Folston: B+
    I think we saw a top 10 FBS running back develop right before our eyes last season. It’s all the work/development that WE never see on the practice field, that sets these guys apart. As he got more and more reps at practice he must have been setting himself apart. Great freshman campaign! Can’t wait to see who he shares carries with in 2014.

    While I have a ton of respect for Cam, I don’t think he’ll ever be better than a Grade-B back. Greg Bryant may be the A-Grade compliment to Folston, combined with a young, but deep offensive line, to run wild in space created with more of a spread I expect to see from BK in 2014.

    Go IRISH!

    • ndfenian - Jan 20, 2014 at 10:23 PM

      I agree with you on Folston. He displayed that “make you miss” factor that the other guys didn’t this year. I still don’t understand why, after rushing for 140 yards against Navy, Kelly gave him only 4 carries in the next game against Pitt. Absurd.

      When it comes to the running game next year, it’s not just about team yards per game. It comes down to short-yardage and the red zone, when everyone in the stadium knows we’re going to run the ball, and we still can. It’s when they stack the box, and we still run over them. That’s when we will have arrived.

    • nudeman - Jan 21, 2014 at 12:56 AM

      This site would be better without you
      But it’s my birthday, I’ve had 20 beers and maybe I’m being harsh

      And maybe not

      • kapnd73 - Jan 28, 2014 at 6:36 AM

        Well, Happy Birthday, Nude! (belatedly)

  9. fnc111 - Jan 20, 2014 at 9:13 PM

    Word is Carlisle is going to get his degree at ND and then transfer for his final year of eligibility so he can play a la Crist/Hendrix.

    • andy44teg - Jan 20, 2014 at 10:13 PM

      Word is you have no clue what you’re talking about on anything

      • idratherbeinsouthbend - Jan 21, 2014 at 10:53 AM


        Please activate my once-per-year multiple thumbs-up function so that I can apply them to andy44teg’s comment


    • heartofgoldandblue - Jan 21, 2014 at 1:04 PM

      Is that from the same source that had BK going to the Lions?

  10. mtflsmitty - Jan 20, 2014 at 9:19 PM

    After re-watching those highlights, JEEZ! Niklas was a beast against FBS competition. Koyack looked good too. Says a lot about Harrry.

    • 1historian - Jan 21, 2014 at 4:46 PM

      Pats are gonna grab Niklas.

      Which means that the next offiicial pass he’ll grab will come from #12.

      Good gig.

      Good luck kid, and make sure you get your degree.

  11. ndfenian - Jan 20, 2014 at 11:38 PM

    You know the unfortunate thing about Atkinson is that he wasn’t able in 2012 and ’13 to establish himself as an elite kick returner. Part of that of is the rule they enacted a couple years ago to force more touchbacks, but he could have been more dynamic had ND’s special teams not been so mediocre. It is disappointing that we have not had a kick return for a TD since 2011. He’s got that straight line speed where I felt that if he had a lane, he could take it to the house. The blocking on returns have left a lot to be desired.

    I certainly think we need a new special teams coach and some starters sprinkled in.

    • ndfaithful - Jan 21, 2014 at 1:05 PM

      How about _A_ special teams coach? I think this is the biggest complaint I have about the program right now. Get somebody and make him responsible for the special teams. It’s coaching by committee right now and has a committee ever succeeded? at anything?

  12. ndunbound - Jan 20, 2014 at 11:49 PM

    Not all of us bought into the 2013 pre-season hype about the running-back position being stocked, Keith. Not everyone thought “the biggest question was how would they divide up the touches.” I remember getting ripped apart on this site for daring to question the running game. My biggest questions were:

    1. Does ND have the talent at RB necessary to have a dominant running game?
    2. Will Kelly commit to the run?

    The answer to both those questions turned out to be “no,” as I had suspected.

    Going in to the 2014 season, I am more optimistic than I was last year regarding the RB talent. But I remain pessimistic that Kelly will commit to the run. A commitment to the run starts in the spring, not midway through a season. Will Kelly spend the time necessary to develop a dominant running game this spring? If not, don’t expect to see one in the fall.

    Kelly said during this past season that ND needed to get back to its roots and develop a smash-mouth running game. Then he abandoned the run until the fourth quarter of the Pinstripe Bowl. So I’ll believe it when I see it. Until then….

    Go Irish!

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Jan 21, 2014 at 11:03 AM

      You don’t think that ND has the talent at RB to have a dominant running game? Hmm…interesting….I must have been watching the regional broadcast of the game and you were watching the national broadcast. Cause I saw some talent in the stable.

      And as far as committing to the run, you may be right. But there are some inherent rules to the game that caused that. You may not want to hear it, but Football 101 says don’t run into a defensive front with 8 men in the box and we saw that the majority of the year.

      Given the fact that we started in a single back set almost all year and faced an 8 man front almost all year, you are asking Kelly/Martin/Tommy to run the ball with 5 or 6 blockers against 8 defenders.

      Coaches that do that don’t keep their jobs.

      • rjshan - Jan 21, 2014 at 8:10 PM


        You’ve got that right !
        For something to do/read in the days until spring practice read
        UNBEATABLE by Jerry Barca (N D 1999). Story of the 1988 N D team—–good read.

  13. newmexicoirish - Jan 21, 2014 at 12:33 AM

    I have watched the Pinstripe Bowl several times since the game was played. Carlisle was pretty impressive on kick returns. Where Atkinson seemed somewhat tentative on kick returns, Carlisle ran with a lot of confidence, toughness, and speed. I hope he finds a niche in the kick game. I think he could also be used effectively as a slot back – especially if he can catch. At any rate, we are going to be very good in the backfield next season, especially when you factor in Golson’s mobility. We should have good balance between the pass and the run – finally. I’m looking forward to it!

    Go Irish!

    • onward2victory - Jan 21, 2014 at 4:08 AM

      Agreed. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, don’t give up on Amir yet. I still believe he’s a special talent.

  14. irishlee10 - Jan 21, 2014 at 1:39 AM

    Just got done watching jimmy clausen high lights. I don’t know how he doesn’t start in the NFL but Matt Magloin does

    • rjshan - Jan 21, 2014 at 8:13 PM

      All Jimmy Clausen needs is Golden Tate !

    • tucsonfan - Jan 22, 2014 at 12:02 AM

      Clausen doesn’t start in the NFL because he flat out isn’t very good–he always was strictly out for himself at ND, one of the most seriously over-rated recruits in ND history. He was strictly focused on getting to the NFL–definitely could have used another year of college.

  15. viktory2013 - Jan 21, 2014 at 5:10 AM

    Atkinson was afraid of taking punishment, taking hits, plain and simple. This last year was marked by playing at half speed and almost perceptibly wincing as tacklers approached.
    Carlisle seemed to gut it up a bit at the end, but he too played much of the season as if he was worried about reinjuring himself.
    Think Folston will be a Riddick clone by the time he’s finished at ND; tough, gutsy little dude who just won’t go down.
    McDaniel will always play, and always pick up 60 or so yards a game, come hell or high water.
    Bryant seems to have the highest upside if he hopefully has his head on straight.
    With Golson basically having as much running ability as any of them, defenses will have a hard time keying on anyone.

    • irish4006 - Jan 21, 2014 at 6:14 PM

      While I admire your admiration of our players, I have to disagree on a couple of points – one, if Folston ends up being a Riddick clone, he wouldn’t have done justice to himself. He is already a better (stronger, faster) runner than Riddick. We haven’t seen much in the blocking/catching areas, if he is a decent blocker and pass catcher, he would be a first rounder.

      Second point I disagree on is about Golson. He does not have as much running ability as any of them (read: none of them). He is mobile and pretty quick/elusive (probably more than you need from a mobile QB with a strong arm), but he is not a running QB in the conventional sense. We hear that he has buffed up in exile, but last time we saw him on the field, he did not seem all that big to withstand the punishment that comes with running the ball regularly.

      • bernhtp - Jan 21, 2014 at 6:22 PM

        While I don’t expect the O-line to be so focused on protecting the QB versus run blocking as in 2013, note that the 2014 #2 QB (assume Zaire) will have far less experience that Hendrix did in 2013. Golson also sat out far more time with injury in 2012 than Rees in 2013.

        I hope that Zaire has significantly progressed and is ready to step in because odds are that Golson will miss time with injury. Kizer is very raw and almost certainly won’t be ready.

  16. 4horsemenrideagain - Jan 21, 2014 at 10:22 AM

    i must admit that at least a part of my unbridled optimism for CMC and calls to rally around him before/during the 2013 season was just because i really liked him as a player and as a kid coming in as a running back that was willing to move to corner back, and then back to running back and all the while to play special teams and throw his body all over the field. i’ll also admit CMC far exceeded my greatest expectations, and it was one of the best and most pleasant surprises of last season to see him get so many carries and to be so productive when his number was called. so, rather than to cite this article and declare “see! i told you so!” this is an admission that along with most of my predictions here, i forecasted (a certain amount of) CMC’s success because i really wanted it to happen, more than because i have keen eye about these things or because i am any more informed than anyone else here.

    this brings us to michael deeb. i can’t wait for this kid to put on the uniform and start cracking skulls. keith’s article on him has ramped up my excitement even more, which means it’s going to be a long 81 days until the blue/gold game. bring on the the clips of spring practice!

    to me, deeb looks like he plays with a mean streak like calobrese, though with the potential to be a bit quicker, faster and more effective in coverage.

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Jan 21, 2014 at 10:26 AM


      it’s wasn’t keith’s article on deeb, it read it somewhere else. which raises the question keith, why don’t you write an article about deeb?

      man, get on board here. he’s the future.

  17. idratherbeinsouthbend - Jan 21, 2014 at 11:11 AM

    Check this out…pretty funny stuff…

    • fw190wuerger - Jan 21, 2014 at 1:06 PM

      If you can’t beat him, join him. Glad the Pack has Eddie Lacy. And without Lacy, Alabama began to falter.

  18. irishlee10 - Jan 21, 2014 at 12:29 PM

    I really hope GB can be everything we want him to be next year. Does anyone think that folston might be better?

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Jan 21, 2014 at 2:00 PM

      I think folston might be better. Let’s be honest, the only reason why people assume Bryant is better than Folston is the 5-star designation from recruiting hubs.

      They are right about half the time. Don’t get me wrong. Bryant might be the beast or they might both be funtabulous. I just think the system that gave us 2/3 star Tom Brady could be a bit of a guessing game. :)

  19. fnc111 - Jan 21, 2014 at 1:47 PM


    Real original. ND will win 25 more national titles in football according to you. 9-4. Kelly has ND on its way to dominance lol! If it’s not a homer opinion by a nitwit like you it’s obviously not allowed. Have you even been to a game at ND?

    • andy44teg - Jan 21, 2014 at 3:31 PM

      Holy $-hit! Seriously..what is your problem? Do you know how much of a complete pompous a$$ that question makes you sound?? I’ve been to 2 ND games in my life: one in SB and the other in Colorado Springs. Kinda hard to scrounge up the time and money growing up middle class on a farm in South Dakota to make it to more than a handful of games. I don’t see how that makes me or anyone else 1 ounce less of a fan than someone with season tickets. I didn’t know that you could make yourself sound more douchey…but you just did.

  20. fnc111 - Jan 21, 2014 at 1:52 PM


    Kelly to the Lions was an opinion, genius. Get your facts straight. It was a pretty damn good one too from a year ago. At least I have an actual opinion and not some homer statement every time on here. Keep supporting Kelly by all means. You know the guy who tried his best to bail out to the Eagles a year ago.

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Jan 21, 2014 at 2:13 PM


      The problem with your ridiculous comments is that you have no perspective. You choose very small pieces of the puzzle and focus on them over and over and over and over again. You want some examples?

      Your popular 9-4 is awful…Kelly Sucks…blah blah blah. You completely ignore the 12-1 season we had last year…or disregarding it as luck (12-1 Auburn have any luck this year?)

      You scream about the Eagles interview, but HUNDREDS of coaches every year consider a move to the next height in their career, whether that’s coordinator to head coach or smaller school to bigger school or big school to NFL. Are all of those coaches heathens, too?

      Nudeman did it with Tommy Rees too, but THE DIFFERENCE is that he occasionally acknowledged that TR wasn’t devil. That shows perspective….

      You just come off as a guy with a grudge. Twenty years from now we’ll probably find out that BK stole your girlfriend in Junior High.

    • danirish - Jan 21, 2014 at 3:40 PM

      “You know the guy who tried his best to bail out to the Eagles a year ago.”

      It is comments of yours like the one above why I have no respect for you. Tried his best? I agree with idratherbeinsouthbend – Kelly did something to you and you hold a grudge.

      You and paulhargis51 are my favorite posters

  21. paulhargis53 - Jan 21, 2014 at 4:22 PM

    If you dare speak the name of your lord and master, get it right. 53, not 51!

    You’ve been warned.

    • danirish - Jan 21, 2014 at 4:46 PM

      Doh! My bad – won’t happen again!

  22. 1historian - Jan 21, 2014 at 5:57 PM

    Suggestion – For which (you-know-who) labeled me a genius.


    aNDY44TEG – You called fnc11 a ‘complete pompous a$$.’ Good one. let’s just shorten it to CPA and leave it at that.

    Dick – he does make the occasional coherent comment and then immediately reverts back to the tm (terminally moronic) mode. Really don’t know what to say there.

    Monsieur cinquante-trois – let’s just leave him at ‘you-know-who’.

    BTW – Braxton Cave was signed by New England for next year.

  23. irishlee10 - Jan 22, 2014 at 6:24 AM

    Exactly he needs Tate! Watch some highlights and watch clausen throw dimes every throw

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