Breaking down 4-0: The running backs

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Part two in our bye week feature on Notre Dame’s 4-0 start. For more, check out our introduction and the secondary.

OFF-SEASON PERSPECTIVE

On paper, running back seemed like a position of strength. Even though the Irish were saying goodbye to senior Jonas Gray, Notre Dame welcomed back returning rushing leader Cierre Wood for his senior season and had Theo Riddick back at his natural running back position. The Irish also had wildcard sophomore George Atkinson at the position, who was more than impressive during the Blue-Gold game. At 6-foot-1, 215-pounds, Atkinson had the size of a big back, but was one of the fastest players in college football.

With freshman Will Mahone and KeiVarae Russell entering the depth chart, and joined by high profile USC transfer Amir Carlisle, this was a position that could help make the transition to a rookie quarterback much easier.

PERSONNEL CHANGES

While the suspensions of Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese stole much of the discussion this offseason, it was only days before the trip to Ireland that Notre Dame announced that starting running back Cierre Wood wouldn’t be traveling to Dublin, as he was suspended two games for a violation of team rules. That put the running game in the hands of Riddick and Atkinson, thinning out the team’s depth while Carlisle recovered slowly from an ankle injury suffered this spring and Russell changed positions.

With junior Cam Roberson going onto a medical hardship scholarship after he was unable to return to form after a devastating knee injury, here’s what the Irish depth chart looks like today.

Cierre Wood, Sr. (served two game suspension, has a fifth-year of eligibility)
Theo Riddick, Sr.
Cam Roberson, Jr. (Medical hardship ended career)
George Atkinson, Soph.
Cam McDaniel, Soph. (Spent spring with cornerbacks, now back on offense.)
KeiVarae Russell, Fr. (Now starting at cornerback)
Will Mahone, Fr.

Nobody saw the suspension of Wood coming. But it’s hard to say he was missed against Navy, when the Irish dominated up front and blew through the Midshipmen with a throw-back running performance.

Since then, it hasn’t been so easy. Wood has slowly worked his way back into the rotation, while averaging 5.6 yards a carry. The staff has relied more on Riddick than anyone else, even if he’s yet to prove he’s an explosive runner and is averaging just 3.8 yards a carry. And Atkinson has gotten lost a bit in the shuffle, too bad considering he’s popped two big runs on his way to averaging 7.7 yards on his 19 carries.

STATISTICAL BREAKDOWN

While he didn’t carry the ball down the stretch against Michigan, Cierre Wood probably should have. Rumors of Wood being in the doghouse during the game last Saturday make sense, if only because you’d expect the Irish’s most reliable and best runner to be getting the ball in crunch time.

Looking at the stats through four games shows you something that you probably already noticed: The running game is a work in progress. With a rebuilt right side of the offensive line, both Mike Golic and Christian Lombard have had some noticeable missed blocks, but the statistical drops could be put on a new young quarterback or some high-level defenses.

Here’s where the Irish sit after four games compared to last season:

Rushing Yards Per Game:
2011: 160.38 (55th)
2012: 140.25 (89th)

Yards Per Carry:
2011: 4.82 (26th)
2012: 3.82 (87th)

Rushing Attempts Per Game:
2011: 33.3 (92nd)
2012: 36.7 (77th)

Again, these stats don’t all fall on the offensive line or the young quarterback, and some of the blame can be put on some relatively inexperienced running backs not showing the patience that Wood has after two seasons carrying the starting load. Both Riddick and Atkinson haven’t showed great patience waiting for their blocks to develop, and a look back at some game tape will show some missed opportunities for the running backs to pick up more yardage.

OVERALL

All things considered, it’s been a disappointing start to the season for the running back position. Wood’s suspension threw the natural rhythm of the group off, and it’s been difficult to get all three runners touches and establish a consistent attack, even though the talent is there.

The best friend of a good running game is a dangerous passing attack and Notre Dame certainly hasn’t shown that either. With defenses routinely stacking eight defenders near the line of scrimmage, running the ball will never be easy. But when the Irish do decide to power the offense with the run, they need to do a more efficient job. With a bye week and a chance for Wood to seize more of the carries, expect the Irish ground game to get healthy against Miami.