Time for Cierre Wood to step up

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With the NFL Scouting Combine beginning tomorrow, Manti Te’o isn’t the only former Notre Dame player that needs to answer some questions. While the media hordes will likely surround Te’o from the minute he steps foot in Indianapolis, there likely won’t be a soul asking Cierre Wood about the eventful six weeks that have taken place since he played his last football game for the Irish. But the truth is, there’s no Notre Dame player that needs to prove more this week than Wood, who could see his draft stock soar or plummet in the next few days.

Wood’s career at Notre Dame will be difficult to classify. From the moment he stepped onto the field, Wood played at a high level, though never seemed to capture the extent of his ability. It’s tough to look at Wood’s career stat-line — 2,447 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 5.4 yards-per-carry — and see a guy that doesn’t have the raw ability to play in the NFL. Yet the fact that he decided to head to the NFL now, after a senior season where he lost his starting job to Theo Riddick, raises more than a few questions.

There’s a nobility in Wood’s decision, with a key factor a young daughter that the Oxnard, California native wants to take care of and raise. But jumping to the NFL now, after a season that was a relative disappointment and included a two-game suspension for an undisclosed team violation, ups the importance of showing athletic ability and speed that is too good for an NFL team to pass up.

While it was hardly Pete Carroll openly questioning Mark Sanchez’s decision to leave school early, it was pretty clear reading between the lines that Brian Kelly wasn’t a fan of Wood’s decision to head to the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining. Kelly said many times this season — often when Wood’s decision to leave was already a foregone conclusion — that he thought there was still work to be done in the veteran running back’s game. And while you could say that’s a coach looking at the depth chart in 2013 and seeing only George Atkinson with any tangible experience, there’s plenty of truth to the statement. (It’s been reported that the Gug featured FatHead like images of the seniors on the walls this year. Wood’s wasn’t included.)

It’s no secret that in the biggest games of his career, Wood has sometimes struggled to make a difference. While he was hardly alone, his stat line against Alabama was nonexistent. The Southern California native also struggled to do much of anything against his hometown Trojans, running for just 25 yards on 13 combined carries in 2011 and 2012. Wood has played well on big stages — a bright spot in a loss against Michigan in ’11, key down the stretch against Michigan State, BYU, and Oklahoma in ’12, but also dodged a major bullet with his goal line fumble in overtime against Pitt. Those kind of mistakes kept Wood out of favor in the feature back category, putting the onus of the offense on Riddick, even though he lacked the explosiveness and skills of his counterpart.

Wood’s body of work can be looked at either way by NFL teams. He’s shared carries the past two years, keeping miles off of his tires. Or he’s given up the role of feature back in college, making it doubtful he’s got what it takes to carry the load in the NFL.

From the first day Brian Kelly stepped on campus, he believed in Cierre Wood. While Kelly wasn’t ready to say his starting running back was ready to say goodbye to his college career, Wood made the difficult decision to move forward, gambling on his speed and skill to fill in the blanks his final season left.

While all eyes certainly won’t be on Wood, he’s got a whole lot to play for.