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.

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.