With the departure of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood from the Irish backfield, Notre Dame’s running game will look drastically different in 2013. Gone is the impressive steadiness that Riddick brought to the Irish offense, the ability to run tough between the tackles while also being a weapon in the passing game. Also departing (early, according to Brian Kelly) is Cierre Wood, a runner with great natural talent, who put up impressive numbers while still giving most of us the feeling that the best was yet to come.
With the Irish saying goodbye to their two leading ball carriers, this spring will go a long way towards deciding who gets the first shot to take their place. While that position battle will add two dynamic options in the fall with Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston joining the fold, until then, there’s plenty of work to be done.
Let’s take a look at the running backs on campus, as a wide open depth chart should be part of this spring’s fun.
RUNNING BACK DEPTH CHART
1. George Atkinson, Jr.
2. Amir Carlisle, Jr.
3. Cam McDaniel, Jr.
4. Will Mahone, Soph.
George Atkinson: Usually 7.1 yards per carry would have you feeling rather confident about the future. Yet Atkinson’s sophomore season felt like a step backwards, or at the very least far too few flashes of brilliance. On the ground, the sophomore provided the home run potential from the backfield, but looked less comfortable handling the day-to-day duties that come with being an every-down running back. While Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly did their best to scheme for Atkinson, his touches never came.
Part of a big-play back’s job is to force the touches to come, and that’s something Atkinson didn’t do last season. He was timid on special teams, too, after an impressive freshman season returning kicks and just too often got lost in the wash as a running back.
Entering his third year, it’ll be up to Atkinson to capitalize on his opportunities. His game breaking speed is an asset not many have. But he’s going to need to show the dedication to his craft this spring and take charge of a position group that’s his to win. That he’s stepping away from track this spring is a step in the right direction. But getting Atkinson to take charge will be the coaching staff’s main priority.
Amir Carlisle: Lingering nerve damage after a broken ankle robbed us of seeing Carlisle in his debut season wearing blue and gold. So expect the Southern Cal transfer to burst out of the gates, making his presence in the Irish backfield -- and potentially in the slot -- noticed immediately.
Nobody is quite sure what the Irish have in Carlisle. Early reports after he stepped foot on campus were extraordinarily positive, with many inside the program excited by his versatility and quickness, something the program has lacked under Kelly.
Listed at 5-foot-10, 185-pounds, it’ll be interesting to see if Carlisle has the bulk to run the ball inside the tackles. But on an offense desperately looking for playmakers, finding creative ways to incorporate a player like Carlisle should be one of spring’s main objectives.
Cam McDaniel: There might not have been a player on the roster to benefit from Cierre Wood’s decision to go to the NFL more than McDaniel. At best, McDaniel would’ve been fighting for third down snaps, a mix-it-up option that comes behind Wood and the big play threat Atkinson.
Yet with the depth chart clearing out, it’s finally time for McDaniel to seize the type of opportunity that might be best for him -- featured back. The thought might be crazy, but McDaniel seemed to do his best work as he found a rhythm in the backfield.
Sure, garbage time stats are a lot different than crunch time carries. But expect McDaniel -- who carries with him supreme confidence -- to do is best to prove that he’s more than just a part-time player.
Will Mahone: After spending 2012 as a redshirt scout team player, Mahone will now give us the chance to see what he’s made of. Is he a big back that can bruise people for the tough yards? Is he versatile enough to get on the edge of the defense and catch passes? What’s his top end speed?
The coaching staff likely knows what it has in Mahone a year after he went up against the No. 1 defense in practice. But Mahone needs to state his case for playing time this spring, before two new freshman find their way into the mix.