Offseason cheat sheet: Running backs

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On paper, Notre Dame’s running back depth chart lacks nothing. It has one of the top athletes in college football, a home run threat who averaged more than seven yards a carry in a down year. There are big backs and jitter bugs, elite recruits and dual threats. The only real problem is that nobody on the roster has much for experience.

Of course, running back is the one position where you can conceivably plug and play. For Brian Kelly and his offensive staff, there is a belief that somebody will be effective in the backfield, and even if there’s a committee running the ball, there’s a man for every role.

With a battle that’s conceivably six ways, let’s walk through the candidates for playing time.

POSITIONAL OVERVIEW

Gone are Notre Dame’s two leading backs, with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood both fighting for jobs in NFL training camps. In their place are a slew of talented players, each with something to bring to the table.

For those that haven’t followed the spring and training camp battles, consider this the one-liner that should get you up to speed:

George Atkinson — Home run threat that lacks pure running back skills.
Cam McDaniel — Pure runner seemingly without any great trait.
Amir Carlisle — Dangerous (and brittle) dual-threat player who might be best out of the slot.
Will Mahone — Once an afterthought, a powerful runner who has impressed during camp.
Greg Bryant — One of the elite freshman skill players in college football. All-around threat.
Tarean Folston — Home run potential with the ability to play multiple spots.

Of course, all of these descriptions are based on reputation, as we’ve only seen Atkinson and McDaniel do much of anything, and neither has done it when the chips were on the table.

For Tony Alford, getting the most out of his position group could come from specialization. Last season, the Irish staff was fine taking advantage of what each back did best. That meant Theo Riddick getting the lion’s share of carries between the tackles even though the converted wide receiver didn’t have the bulk to be a traditional power runner.

With another two weeks of practice before the Irish play Temple, expect each of the six backs to get a good look — if only to help the staff figure out how this group of playmakers can help the team win.

ROSTER READING

Here’s our best guess at a depth chart, with the caveat that 1-6 could be way, way, way off.

1. George Atkinson, Jr. #4
2. Cam McDaniel, Jr. #33
3. Greg Bryant, Fr. #1
4. Amir Carlisle, Jr. #3**
5. Tarean Foston, Fr. #25
6. Will Mahone, Soph. #32

** Carlisle could very well be the Irish’s starting slot receiver come the season opener.

CRYSTAL BALL

There’s no position on the Irish roster where the results could vary like the running back depth chart. In one iteration, George Atkinson becomes one of college football’s big play threats — a guy that could put up stupid numbers by breaking long runs every Saturday. Of course, the staff could get frustrated with Atkinson like they did Cierre Wood last season, putting their stock in a less explosive player just because they like the way he runs the ball.

If that’s the case, look towards Cam McDaniel. After waiting his turn, the junior running back is confident that he’s the guy for the job, with added bulk helping him work through the wear and tear of running between the tackles. McDaniel is a guy that always seems to fall forward, and has looked his best when given garbage time minutes to keep the clock running. Given the chance to run behind the Irish’s top offensive line, McDaniel could be a guy that racks up big time yardage, even if he lacks that elite skill-set that ND fans crave.

Of course, if you are looking for an elite player, Greg Bryant might be your man. The five-star freshman has done nothing but impress with both his versatile skills and sculpted physique. He’s probably not the biggest of fastest back, but he does a ton of things really, really well. Surprising most this fall was Tarean Folston. Checking in at 207 pounds, the big-play threat has the bulk needed to withstand the banging inside the tackles, and the ability to help in the passing attack and return game as well.

Of course, Brian Kelly made a point to mention Will Mahone’s fall camp, with the sophomore impressing as a slot receiver. With the depth chart deep at tailback, Mahone — who looked like the closest thing to a power runner on the roster — has better ball skills than most gave him credit for.

If you’re feeling like this crystal ball looks mighty murky, it’s because there’s no true feeling how this running attack plays out. It could be Atkinson that takes the job and runs, or Bryant that turns into Kelly’s first freshman impact player. Just as likely are big seasons from McDaniel or Carlisle, two guys that can certainly carry the load if needed.

Most likely is a group effort, with each player taking advantage of one thing they do very, very well. It’s not a scheme that’ll make anybody an All-American, but it could help the offense become the most productive unit of the Kelly era.