Spring Solutions: Running back

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One of the more competitive positions on the Irish depth chart has 15 practices to gain some clarity. Running backs coach Tony Alford has one of the deepest position groups to sort through this spring, though the unit is still looking for a breakout star at the position.

While rising sophomore Tarean Folston showed some flashes of that type of potential last season, he certainly won’t be given the starting job. Classmate Greg Bryant returns healthy this spring, a knee injury behind him as he takes off his medical redshirt. They’ll be joined by veterans Cam McDaniel, the team’s leading rusher, along with Amir Carlisle and Will Mahone.

Let’s take a look at the depth chart before walking through the group’s objectives.

RUNNING BACK DEPTH CHART

Cam McDaniel, Sr.
Tarean Folston, Soph.
Amir Carlisle, Sr.*
Greg Bryant, Soph.*
Will Mahone, Jr.*

*Fifth year of eligibility available.

It’s hard to imagine Brian Kelly starting Folston at the top of the depth chart, especially considering McDaniel is a senior and the team’s leading returning rusher. And after Folston, it’ll be a wide open competition, with all three backs pushing for opportunities. Carlisle gets the No. 3 slot by default.

Atkinson’s early departure opens up some opportunities in special teams and a portion of carries, but certainly doesn’t do enough to provide clarity in a really compelling horse race. There are no additions or subtractions other than Atkinson, making it clear to all contenders how they stack up against their teammates.

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Cam McDaniel: Count me among those that wouldn’t be surprised if McDaniel came into camp a little lighter than he played last season. The senior played at a roster-listed 207 pounds, likely adding some heft to absorb some of the short-yardage, inside-the-tackles pounding that he took because the team’s personnel needed him to play that role.

McDaniels rushed for 4.6 yards per carry last season, a respectable number, but hardly an explosive one. In his final season in South Bend, expect McDaniel to try and add a big play element to his game, something a little less luggage could help him do.

Tarean Folston: The future is now for Folston, who could go a long way towards cementing a featured role in the running game with an impressive spring. Part of that work needs to be happening now, with offseason conditioning the first datapoint the staff will look at in Folston’s maturation. But throughout these 15 practices, Folston’s experience last season needs to lead to complete comprehension of the offense, successfully doing the little things that are expected from an all-purpose starting running back.

At times the game looked to come easy to Folston last season. He’ll need to carry that confidence into spring, where he’ll likely be running against a revamped No. 1 front seven, a matchup that (temporarily, at least) should favor the offense.

Amir Carlisle: You could pinpoint where Carlisle’s 2013 season went south last year. After a late-game fumble against Purdue, Carlisle seemed to lose all momentum, eventually fading out of the team’s game plan until serving as the team’s kick returner in the bowl game. Carlisle needs to put the negatives of 2013 behind him as he reinserts himself into the mix.

There are plenty of positives to take from last season. Carlisle made it through without getting injured, showing some durability that many didn’t expect to see. He ran hard inside the tackles and showed the type of explosiveness on the season’s first play that we expected to see more than once.

Ben Koyack rebounded from a sophomore slump season. Carlisle can do the same, with two years of eligibility left with the Irish. He’s capable of catching passes, making plays in space and making an impact in the return game. But he’s got to repair his psyche this spring first.

Greg Bryant: A meniscus injury gave Bryant a mulligan off the first tee. Shaking off the frustration of a slow start to his career, Bryant can now get on with the business of becoming an impact player for the Irish. Everybody expects Bryant to thrust himself into the conversation at running back. But it appears he’s also being groomed as a punt returner as well.

It’s too hard to gather much from the three carries Bryant had last season. But every report out of preseason camp made it look like Bryant would be an early contributor and someone that had the abilities to dominate as a runner, pass catcher and complete football player. Healthy and returning as a redshirt freshman, Bryant has 15 spring practices to make his mark.

Will Mahone: If there’s been a forgotten man in all of this, it’s Mahone. This will be an important spring for the rising junior, who did some things in fall camp to catch the staff’s eyes before suffering a high ankle sprain.

There’s no question that it’s a crowded depth chart. But Mahone showed enough speed and quickness to spend some time at slot receiver, and provided some intriguing highlights at Camp Shiloh to make it look like he’s more than just another body at the position.

Listed at 214 pounds on last year’s roster, if there’s a role for Mahone in this offense it could be as a power, short-yardage runner. It’ll be interesting to see where he sits in on the spring roster and if he can find a niche in this offense.