Against just about all odds, senior Cam McDaniel led the Irish in rushing in 2013. With Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston joining him in the backfield in 2014, he faces similarly long odds to do it again.
But the betting man shouldn’t count McDaniel out. Even though he’s not the biggest, strongest or fastest back on the roster, McDaniel has been a productive football player for the Irish every chance he’s been given. In 2013, he worked his way to the top of a five-headed depth chart by being reliable as both an inside and outside runner, grinding out the tough yards when George Atkinson and Amir Carlisle couldn’t.
With the depth chart down to three backs, McDaniel doesn’t seem to have the skills that Folston and Bryant possess. But he does have the trust of his head coach, something that Kelly’s shown to be mighty important for a running back.
Let’s take a look a closer look at the Texas native and the challenge he faces in 2014.
5'10" 207 lbs.
Senior, No. 33
McDaniel was just a three-star running back, even though he ran for over 1,900 yards as an All-State back at Coppell, earning District MVP at the highest level of play in Texas high school football. McDaniel was sitting on offers from programs like Stanford, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa and Iowa State, but when Notre Dame came calling, it was all but over.
McDaniel committed in late November, where he joined soon to decommit Justice Hayes and George Atkinson in the 2011 recruiting class (who was then viewed as a receiver). Here’s what Kelly said about McDaniel on Signing Day.
“Here’s a young man that’s got great durability. Played at the highest level in Texas,” Kelly said. “Carried the ball inside. This is not a guy that lined up at the slot and they threw screens to. This is a guy that was able to run. The real sell for us was his durability, toughness and his ability to play through some injury and also have a dynamic piece to him as well. He can catch the football. He can play in all of the special teams for us. And he’s physical enough at 190 pounds that he can run inside. He’s got an inside presence.
We needed somebody that could bang it up inside as well. And his durability and his ability to play through some nicks and a couple of injuries was a huge component for us. He’s got good speed at the top end of competition.”
Freshman Season (2011): Played in eight games, mostly on special teams. Made two tackles and also returned two kicks for 24 yards. Had three carries for nine yards on the season.
Sophomore Season (2012): Saw action in all 13 games, one of the team’s best special teamers. Rushed 23 times for 125 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry and scoring one touchdown. Cross-trained and briefly saw action as a cornerback. Made five tackles on special teams.
Junior Season (2013): Played in all 13 games, starting four. Led Notre Dame in carries (152) and rushing yards (705). Tied for the team lead with three rushing touchdowns.
At this point, we’ve seen the player that McDaniel is. He’s a tough, well-rounded, versatile running back. And on a roster that was left off-balance with Cierre Wood departing with a year of eligibility remaining and Atkinson and Carlisle not living up to expectations at the position, McDaniel served as a more than competent fill-in.
At 4.6 yards per carry, McDaniels’ lack of explosiveness is statistically obvious. And pushing 210 pounds, he’s still not the type of pound-it-out short-yardage ball carrier that you want to move the chains or pound it in for six points. That role will likely go to Bryant or Folston, two players who naturally carry that weight better, not to mention have an extra gear.
But McDaniel is a natural running from the shotgun, capable of seeing a hole and finding daylight. And while most expect to see that sophomore duo have a breakout season, McDaniel’s utility alone will get him enough playing time to stay happy.
Count me among those who expect to see McDaniel a little bit leaner and lighter in 2014. Forced to be the big back in an offense that desperately needed George Atkinson to play up to his weight, taking off 10 pounds could help add a bit of elusiveness to McDaniel, a skill he showed previous to last season.
Ultimately, how you see McDaniel’s season playing out depends on how you see Folston and Bryant. I’m a believer in the young duo, but also think there’s plenty to get out of a veteran that’s seen a lot of action like McDaniel. Whether that’s as the team’s third-down back, or sharing time in the backfield with Folston or Bryant flexed outside, McDaniel is the type of player who will do whatever it takes to help the team.
Does that mean making tackles on special teams? Maybe. Does that mean wearing a ‘C’ on his jersey? Offensively, who’s a better option? McDaniel is a supremely confident athlete, hardly willing to “step aside” for the young rising stars to own this backfield.
That type of pride and veteran leadership is what a winning program is built on. And in McDaniel, Notre Dame has a wonderful example to young players.
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