Trio of unproven running backs should surprise

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With Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood gone from the Irish backfield, the Notre Dame running game is missing its two leading men from 2012. Yet there isn’t a huge worry about what comes next. Even with Riddick’s surprising, hard charging senior season and Wood’s three seasons in (and around) the starting lineup, there’s every belief that the Irish running game will be just fine.

That comfort probably comes because the depth chart behind Riddick and Wood features some intriguing prospects. Lead among them is George Atkinson. If it’s possible to call a season where a back averages more than seven yards a carry disappointing, Atkinson’s 2012 was a sophomore slump. He wasn’t special on special teams, he ran somewhat timidly at times, and never forced the coaching staff to get the ball into his hands.

But that doesn’t make him any less intriguing of an athlete. A good spring has the coaching staff saying all the right things. At 215 pounds and with elite sprinter speed, Atkinson is a home run threat waiting to happen. He’s the type of athlete that Notre Dame fans haven’t seen too often in an Irish uniform, and found his way onto Bruce Feldman’s annual “Freaks List.

George Atkinson III, Notre Dame, RB-KR: The reserve Irish running back has good size at 215 pounds to go with blazing speed. Last year, he ran a 10.36 100-meter dash at the Big East track championships. Even though it was a wind-aided time, it wasn’t much over the legal-limit and shows a gear Notre Dame football fans hadn’t seen much of in a few years.

But that’s not all the Irish have in the backfield. While Atkinson will likely get the first chance to take the starting job, both Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel should get significant touches in this Irish offense.

Head coach Brian Kelly talked about both players during his Town Hall chat with Tim Brown. He didn’t necessarily say anything we haven’t already heard, but he did confirm that after two seasons of playing mostly mop-up minutes and filling in as a jack-of-all-trades, that McDaniel is ready to help the Irish win.

“I really like the fact that we’ve got a couple of guys at the running back position that have gone kind of under the radar that really could help us,” Kelly said. “Cam McDaniel is a guy that people dismiss right away. He’s 5-foot-9 and he doesn’t have the prototypical speed of the great backs, but god, he does everything. He does all the jobs that you want to win games.”

Kelly also talked up Carlisle, who was featured during the “Strong & True” documentary with his hard luck collarbone injury. After sitting out last year with a broken ankle after transferring in from USC, the injury made some doubt his ability to be an every down player, but Kelly has a chance to use Carlisle as a true hybrid slot player we haven’t seen in the Irish offense.

“And then we have a guy that’s not as big, who transferred in,” Kelly said of Carlisle. “But he’s got great speed and great ball skills. I think both of those kids have a chance to really impact our offense and really make us very versatile in the things that we can do.”

Versatility will need to be on display if Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin want to find enough touches for the trio. But with Atkinson looking the part of a lead back and McDaniel and Carlisle too good to keep off the field, it will be fun to watch the running game take shape.