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.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 31 Jack Lamb, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3 ¾, 216 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: Recruiting rankings may have slotted Lamb a bit ahead of fellow early-enrollee Bo Bauer, but spring practices showed a more college-ready Bauer, even if only slightly. Irish head coach Brian Kelly specifically mentioned Bauer’s physicality as his advantage at this point. Thus, Lamb fits in just below his classmate on the defensive third-string at both/either interior linebacker roles.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Lamb chose Notre Dame over UCLA, basically in his hometown, with most of the Pac 12 pursuing him as well. Rivals.com rated the Under Armour All-American as the No. 2 inside linebacker in the class, No. 10 prospect in California and No. 77 in the country overall.

QUOTE(S)
If Lamb plays this season, that action will be driven by his athleticism. His limited time in a collegiate strength and conditioning program, though, could keep those moments to only brief appearances, even if his early enrollment provided Lamb six extra months of weight room work.

“Lamb is somebody that is extremely athletic,” Kelly said in mid-March. “[He] can run sideline to sideline, but then is he strong enough physically to take on the pounding that’s required at that position?”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN LAMB’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“Lamb will provide immediate depth at a position surprisingly lacking in the commodity. A physical linebacker with solid football instincts, Lamb should work his way up the depth chart in short order.

“… Lamb might jump the current freshman duo of Drew White and David Adams. At that point, he could be in the linebacker rotation by the end of September.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Lamb likely would have seen time this season, even if only on special teams and in mop-up situations, before the NCAA granted a four-game window for freshmen to play before losing a season of eligibility. Now, it would not be a complete shock to see Lamb appear in only four or fewer games.

While he may provide the Irish defense with depth, only a rash of injuries would force Lamb into an abundance of competitive snaps. Instead, focusing those moments into a full quarter or half of action in a blowout (read: vs. Ball State on Sept. 8) and some spot relief duty as the defense tires in November could be mutually beneficial for both the team as a whole and Lamb’s long-term development.

It may be Lamb plays on special teams throughout the season, at which point the NCAA’s new wrinkle never mattered in this instance.

DOWN THE ROAD
Lamb will have a chance at starting in 2019, especially if his ability to handle the collegiate wear-and-tear does not diminish the hype once wrought by his recruitment. Notre Dame will be without both the current starters in fifth-year Buck linebacker Drue Tranquill and senior Mike linebacker Te’von Coney. Sophomore safety-turned-linebacker Jordan Genmark-Heath and junior Jonathan Jones have the pole positions for rights as the next starter at each of those positions, respectively, but Lamb (and Bauer) will have an entire fall of practice to establish a need for genuine competition in the spring and next preseason.

Even if that reshuffling does not occur before 2019’s opener, the early-enrolled interior duo will force the issue at some point, even if Genmark-Heath takes to his new position as ably as would ever be dared to hope. In Lamb’s case specifically, time will strengthen his pass coverage abilities, the only clear deficiency in his game, somewhat expected of any high school linebacker. He already excels in tackling and the needed form.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 34 Jahmir Smith, running back, early-enrolled freshman
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

OUTGOING TRANSFER
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 34 Jahmir Smith, early-enrolled freshman running back

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-11, 200 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: The actions of others (dismissed running backs Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes) will have immediate consequences for Smith. He finished spring third on the depth chart of prototypical running backs, behind junior Tony Jones and senior Dexter Williams, while sophomores Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis worked as receiver/running back possibilities in that mix, as well.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect, Smith was recruited far and wide, hearing from both his homestate North Carolina and from the opposite coast in Cal and USC. He committed to Notre Dame in July of the summer before his senior year, though, ending any possible drama as the No. 20 running back in the class, per rivals.com.

QUOTE(S)
Given Smith’s likelihood of playing this fall, his early enrollment’s innate head start in the weight room and learning the playbook should pay quick dividends.

“[He’s] just retaining information really good at a fast rate, so that’s very encouraging,” Irish running backs coach Autry Denson said in late March. “Right now, every one of those [running backs] is being relied on to play. He’s doing a great job retaining information, a great job of just going out and playing football, trusting the process right now.”

Denson went on to praise Smith for “catching the ball a lot better than I thought he would,” something of a back-handed compliment. Smith briefly illustrated those abilities during the Blue-Gold Game, pulling in a 19-yard catch and a three-yard reception, both from junior quarterback Ian Book.

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN SMITH’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“Smith breaks tackles rather than avoiding them. A low center of gravity and eagerness for contact will knock defenders backward more often than not, in many respects offering a skillset currently lacking from Notre Dame’s backfield.

“… The Irish have capable running backs floating around aplenty, but as 2017 showed, there can never be enough of those. Smith might as well expect to see some action his freshman season, especially if current junior Josh Adams heads to the NFL as is expected and logical.”

Editor’s Note: Smith signed with Notre Dame during December’s early signing period, before the issues with McIntosh and Holmes escalated, hence the usage of the ‘aplenty’ characterization.

2018 OUTLOOK
Smith was quite likely to play this season even before the NCAA’s rule change allowing freshmen to play in up to four games without losing a season of eligibility. That new quirk makes it a bit more difficult to project if a player will play in four or five (and more) games, but with Smith it is safe to presume he will see action in the majority of Notre Dame’s contests.

He will be needed. Running backs get hurt, especially it would seem Jones and Williams. When a victory becomes a blowout, the Irish will not want to continue to expose Jones’ ankles or Williams’ quads. Smith (and/or incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister) will get the carries, possibly racking up stats a la McIntosh last year. McIntosh’s 368 yards and five touchdowns were primarily the result of running behind the country’s best offensive line, but that line should be solid again this year, putting Smith in position for 200 yards and three touchdowns, perhaps.

Armstrong and Davis may keep Smith from an excess of competitive carries, as they will offer changes of pace to Jones’ bruising that Smith will not.

DOWN THE ROAD
Williams runs out of eligibility this season, creating a need for at least one contributing back in 2019. The best bet is Smith and Flemister split those carries while Jones remains the lead ballcarrier.

In 2020, though, Notre Dame will need to rely on one of this year’s two freshmen, especially considering the near vacuum in offensive skill position players in the current recruiting cycle; only Thursday evening did the Irish secure the commitment of consensus three-star running back Kyren Williams (St. John Vianney High School; St. Louis).

Armstrong and Davis may continue to pick up some carries, but neither projects as primarily a running back, but rather each as a slot receive comfortable motioning into the backfield.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

OUTGOING TRANSFER
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame’s recruiting class gets an offensive skill player, consensus three-star RB Kyren Williams

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Notre Dame finally has an offensive skill player in the recruiting class of 2019 (again). Consensus three-star running back Kyren Williams (St. John Vianney High School; St. Louis) committed to the Irish on Thursday, joining and following four offensive linemen just as he will certainly hope to while actually in college.

Including those linemen and Williams, the Notre Dame class now has 15 commitments, but only the one running back among quarterback, running back, receiver and tight end possibilities. The modifier again is required in the lede because consensus four-star quarterback Cade McNamara (Demonte Ranch H.S.; Reno, Nev.) originally committed to the Irish before stepping away from that pledge in early March.

Even without a dynamic playmaker, the class had risen up recruiting rankings.

That should now not only continue but be a bit more legitimate.

Williams chose Notre Dame over a lengthy offer list, headlined by Michigan, Stanford and his homestate Missouri. Part of his allure to schools in general and specifically the Irish is his pass-catching abilities. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long’s ideal running back can motion out of the backfield and be deployed as a genuine receiving threat, thus creating a myriad of possibilities in two-back sets. That is one of the driving reasons junior Tony Jones is considered the top running back entering 2018; he is a more viable receiver than senior running back Dexter Williams.

Kyren Williams visited campus this past weekend.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3, 200 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Doerer will presumably handle kickoff duties to allow senior placekicker Justin Yoon to focus on the uprights.
Recruiting: Doerer’s de-commitment from Maryland to pledge to Notre Dame the weekend before National Signing Day came shortly after the Irish began focusing their pursuit on the kicker, a somewhat surprising recruitment considering Yoon had, at that point, two full years of eligibility remaining.

CAREER TO DATE
Doerer saw action in seven games last season with mixed results. His debut against Boston College consisted of three kickoffs yielding the Eagles an average field position of their own 30-yard-line, buoyed by a kickoff out of bounds.

He recovered only somewhat from his shaky debut two weeks later late in the blowout of Miami (OH), sending two of his five kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.

2017: 32 kickoffs, nine touchbacks, one out of bounds.

SPRING
Doerer never came up this spring. Part of the reasoning for the coming indoor practice facility — to be completed next summer — is to allow for more springtime work for the specialists. Only two or three of Notre Dame’s spring practices were outdoors this year, and the current indoor facility’s ceiling is too low for a kicker like Doerer to properly work on hang time and placement.

He did convert a 20-yard field goal and one extra point in the Blue-Gold Game.

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Expect Doerer to handle kickoffs from the outset and retain that duty until/unless it goes awry. Yoon’s injury concerns should be in the past by September, but allowing him to focus on placekicks could hold value for Notre Dame. Hence, [Irish head coach Brian] Kelly welcomed the chance to fill a scholarship slot with Doerer.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Doerer arrived at Notre Dame praised for his ability to send deep kicks high with hang time. It is a unique skill, albeit one needed less and less as the NCAA and the NFL increasingly try to diminish the high-speed collisions of kickoffs.

As a freshman, Doerer eventually proved his ability to handle the specialty duties by pinning Wake Forest returners inside the five-yard line six of nine times, with the other three landing as touchbacks. The Demon Deacons couldn’t risk the ball bouncing away from the end zone, but fielding a kickoff at the three-yard line after it has decent hang time is, and indeed was, a recipe for poor field position.

No longer. The NCAA has now adopted a rule wherein such a kickoff could be fair caught and the ball would be subsequently placed at the 25-yard line. There is no longer anything to gain from lofting a kickoff to the two-yard line rather than simply blasting it out of the end zone.

Doerer will still be asked to do the latter, but the uniqueness of his abilities has been reduced drastically.

DOWN THE ROAD
Both Yoon and fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome will be out of eligibility after this season. Doerer will almost certainly take over as the placekicker, and working as the punter could reinvigorate some of the pertinence of his skillset. Pinpointing a punt out of bounds at the four-yard line does not incur a penalty like it does with a kickoff. Instead, it entirely alters an opposing offense’s strategy.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

OUTGOING TRANSFER
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer