Impressions: Running Backs

Installment No. 2 in our Spring Impressions series looks at the remarkably thin running back unit heading into the off-season.

Separation and an Identity Crisis

With good health, you'll hear the name, "Darius Walker" often during Irish telecasts this November. The reference point will be a breakout season by Cierre Wood who I expect to become the first Irish ‘back since Walker to approach (or come within shouting distance of) the 1,000-yard rushing mark in a single season…Add to that the probability that Wood will join Walker as the only ‘back since 2006 to score more than five rushing touchdowns in a season, and Wood would cement his emergence as the only true lead runner the program has had in the last five football years– not coincidentally, the Irish lost at least five games in each of those seasons (2007-2010)…

Rushing TD last season: Dayne Crist (4); Cierre Wood (3); Robert Hughes (2); Armando Allen (2) – those 11 tied the program record for the fewest in team history (2007) and it took 13 games this time, to boot…

While I often reference Wood's post-game/practice interviews for their comedic (intentional and unintentional) value, the junior's also a dedicated ‘back, a blossoming, versatile backfield option, and just as important, he possesses a natural runner's instincts with a combination of elusiveness, balance, and enough speed to become the first consistent long-distance (40+ yards) threat since Julius Jones (2003 - and a much different runner) and prior to that, Autry Denson (1998), of whom Wood is likely faster, though not as rugged through the holes...If Wood's junior season approaches Denson's, Brian Kelly's squad will contend for a BCS title this fall...

Wood added two receiving scores last year to finish second overall in total touchdowns (Michael Floyd: 12)…Wood joined classmate Theo Riddick as the only Irish players to register a touchdown in three consecutive contests…

Wood wasn't one of my Top 10 Irish players last fall (he finished No. 12, I believe), but he will be listed as such entering September, even though each of the original 10 return for the 2011 season...

Behind Wood is the powerful, fast, agile, bright – yet still-without-a-collegiate touchdown Detroit Country Day-product, Jonas Gray…The senior has earned just 75 career carries entering his final season and 82 touches – in four of his first 60 touches, Gray finished the play with a fumble (none last year)…The affable senior is a player I've championed as a 10-carry-per-game option since his 19-yard burst to the far pylon vs. Nevada set up the 2009 season's first score, but I can count the number of impact plays since registered by Gray (four) on one hand…

I don't think Gray's view of himself (a complete ‘back that must re-focus as a north-south runner to earn playing time – and thus commence hitting home runs) is yet in congress with what the staff needs and demands from him: to become a north-south runner for the Irish power game – period:

"I would like to put myself in the category of being able to do all those things (power and hit the big run outside), but I want to become one of those players that will hammer it in there; will wear you down, and then hit you with a home run. I want to be that type of guy. I'm excited for the season, and I think you guys will see that."

Regarding his 225-pound frame:

"I'm actually trying to lose weight, cut down, get faster and more powerful," he said at the conclusion of spring. "Gaining weight wasn't a thing for me, just playing with a tough attitude and mindset and the rest will take care of itself…I'm about 225 (pounds). I want to be somewhere around 220-215, to be a little bit faster and more explosive."

Four-month proving ground

Gray has enough speed to hit the whole vs. an 8-man front, find a crease, and take it the distance – but that won't happen until his pad level remains low through scrimmage and he picks up necessary yardage before looking to tack on more (a truth Gray acknowledged in our final spring interview):

"Basically we have this thing called ‘The Shoot' – those red bars (on the practice field) that keep us low – I'm going to use that to try to (stay) low running through the holes; to keep my pad level low, that's one of the biggest things I need to work on, and once I get that mentality of staying low, the rest will take care of itself."

Head coach Brian Kelly and running backs coach Tim Hinton need a runner to replace graduated RB Robert Hughes, a player who likewise struggled with his identity as a collegiate ‘back for the bulk of his Irish career, until playing his best ball at the school in his final season's final month. But it's tough for a kid (such as Gray) that views himself as an "Adrian Peterson," to accept a role representative of a *Leroy Hoard – it is, however, the first hurdle for Gray to conquer prior to crunch-time playing time vs. South Florida.

(*Hoard's refreshing, self-aware NFL motto: "If you need one yard, I'll get you three yards. If you need five yards, I'll get you three yards…" yielded 10 touchdowns in his 10th season in the league. )

One play away

That's what separates incoming freshman ‘back Cam McDaniel from Notre Dame's 2011 two-deep depth chart. And since Cierre Wood would likely become considerably less effective with 20 carries per game (rather than 15-16), the No. 2 back in head coach Brian Kelly's offense simply must be able to handle work vs. a slate of opponents featuring 11 BCS conference foes (and solid Navy)…

Kelly noted midway through the spring that the staff had a plan in place to allow four "four" scholarship backs and "seven" wide receivers for the fall rotation – that points to a freshman year evaluation of George Atkinson III in the Irish backfield…Atkinson's ability to catch the football would be a welcomed addition, especially as a change-of-pace ‘back…

Accepting that most ‘backs look other-worldly in high school highlight videos (remember Armando Allen?), it's worth noting that Atkinson's upright running style and second gear is reminiscent of all-time great Eric Dickerson – now, should we ever make the comparison again, we'll be onto something…The early winner in (my) purported McDaniel/Atkinson battle for No. 3 next fall won't be the more dynamic runner, but rather, the player that can pick up his tailored offensive package – not to mention the correct blitzing defender in pass protection...

McDaniel's familiarity as a read-option runner won't hurt his early impression in August…Two-year Blue Gold Game workhorse and respected walk-on Patrick Coughlin is also in the mix as a player that could give the Irish an emergency snap or three if necessary early next season…

Reality

The late March knee injury suffered by No. 3 'back and 2010 Scout Team offensive player of the year Cameron Roberson greatly impacted the position's depth and overall plan, at least over the next calendar year...Roberson will be five months removed from one torn, and one partially torn knee ligament (and subsequent surgery) when the Irish kick-off vs. South Florida on September 4...

Wood will start, three will play, and a fourth must be game-ready for 13 consecutive weeks...With good health, each member of the Irish backfield will receive quality practice reps; with an injury or two, each will receive game day carries (Notre Dame's fourth running back last season, Gray, earned 20 carries including 12 over a two-game November span) – the position simply incurs too much damage to resemble the unit as forecast in the summer and early season…For all the hand-wringing, excuses, and notions regarding a running back's assimilation to the college game, it's also true that freshmen runners have, and will always, succeed in college football...Sometimes talent wins out.

A lingering injury to Cierre Wood ranks behind only the absence of LB Manti Te'o and a lengthy team-imposed suspension of WR Michael Floyd, as the worst-case scenario for the 2011 Irish.


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