Final Impressions: Offensive Backfield

Our first set of final off-season and August camp impressions focuses on the Irish quarterbacks and running backs.

Just when you thought there was nothing more to say...

Quarterbacks

If your glass is half-empty: it's rarely a good sign when a QB competition involving guys not named "Montana" and "Young" is too close to call…Regardless, the Irish have a quality, winning backup in Tommy Rees; the last time ND had a backup QB with four wins to his credit entering a season was 2004 with Carlyle Holiday, who was 15-9 as a starter…

I'm a Rees fan, but no one can tell me Dayne Crist couldn't have won at least six of his eight starts had the Irish offense mirrored that which Kelly afforded Rees last November…Few stats tell the full tale of a quarterback, but if Crist can play 12-13 games while throwing 10 or fewer interceptions, Notre Dame will win at least nine games this fall…Then again, if Crist leads the Irish in rushing touchdowns as he did last year, it's going to be a long off-season in South Bend…

Crist's first call of duty is the oft-discussed need for improved accuracy on his mid-range throws; another would be giving Floyd a chance to win the one-on-one deep ball, at least when the Irish are on their own side of the 50…If Crist can use his straight-line speed to pick up extra yards, or if he's really learned to buy time in the pocket as the staff has expressed, the Irish will be tough to stop on 3rd and 5 this fall…It's notable that Crist's three injuries (knee, concussion, knee) occurred when he escaped the pocket and headed downfield...

The last Irish QB to defeat Michigan and Michigan State in the same season? Brady Quinn in 2004 (he failed to do so in '05-'06)…Crist will get a huge ovation following his first chain-moving run of 2011; Rees would likely get a roar from the crowd if he enters briefly due to a mild injury to Crist as well…Rees to Floyd in five games, 2010: 35 completions, 6 touchdowns, 401 yards; Crist to Floyd in 7 games, 2010: 44 completions, 6 touchdowns, 624 yards – in other words, both know where their bread is buttered…Crist developed a mid-season rapport with Riddick before the slot receiver was lost to an ankle injury: the 33 completions between the pair was the third highest total between a QB and WR over a four-game period in the last 40 years at the program...

Brian Kelly has offered that Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix are still running neck-and-neck and will likely rotate with varsity/scout team snaps: Hendrix should be the first of the two off the bench if this is true as Golson can still preserve a year of eligibility…If Golson has yet to clean up ball security issues, I'd prefer any his (fan-fueled) "special packages" not have anything to do with the team's goal line offense…

Important for Hendrix's future battles vs. Golson, et al: what does the Cincinnati sophomore bring that the others don't? Key to Golson's eventual ascent: realizing he's no longer the best athlete on the field every game, but still using his quickness and knack for making people miss to avoid sacks and created positive plays...

Crist at his best under Kelly: a twisting, weaving (called back) TD jaunt vs. Michigan; the late-game strike to Rudolph downfield vs. the Wolverines…a beautiful back-of-the-end zone TD high and tight to Floyd vs. two shorter defenders at MSU…a nearly flawless quarter of read-option football at Boston College…a prime example of veteran game management, in a tough win over Pittsburgh (1 rushing/1 passing TD/1 passing TD called back, and no turnovers)...

Crist at his worst: Throwing errantly from his own end zone at Navy…stubbornly throwing mid-range sideline routes vs. Navy's Cover 2, the final toss resulting in another interception…throwing into the stands from the 26-yard line to conclude the Michigan game…throwing into the stands twice to Floyd in solo coverage vs. Purdue...

It's notable that each of Crist's "worst" moments are correctable through coaching and game experience.

Running Backs

The dearth of rushing TD at the program over the last six seasons serves as a microcosm of the era: a lack of consistent, physical toughness and will to compete past the whistle that made the offense either one dimensional (2006, 2009), poor (2007, 2008) or awkward (2010)...I don't think ND has the backfield or running game to explode this year, but they'll barely resemble the unreliable units of past seasons…

Expect Notre Dame's four running backs to have more receptions than last year's quartet (47), though the key is that a decent percentage are not of the check-down, bail-out variety; only two of those 47 resulted in scores, 15 in first downs, and a head-shaking 1 (one!) resulting in an Irish first down on a 3rd Down play…

I have Cierre Wood for 10 total touchdowns, more than 850-950 rushing yards, and about 35-45 receptions: near team-MVP numbers if guys named Michael Floyd and Manti Te'o didn't exist…Wood's a tough comparison from Irish ‘backs of the past (I've seen '93 star Lee Becton as one relevant example) – I think he's closer to former Florida State running back and 49ers second-round pick Amp Lee: elusive, quicker than fast, and as Keith Jackson once mused of Lee: "He just ‘aint got no handles on him…you can't grab him"...

Regarding Wood: I'll still enter each weekend fearful of a fumble – especially at Michigan…Would you sign up for four touchdowns and 390 yards for Jonas Gray right now? I think I would, especially the latter number, because more than 30 yards per game from your backup ‘back would be invaluable, plus there'd certainly be an ebb and flow to his weekly numbers…

If Gray scores in Week One, look out: it might be all the senior needs to become Notre Dame's best goal line back since Rashon Powers-Neal in 2005…Gray, Lo Wood, and John Goodman are three players that could use a fast start in 2011…Can Gray function in the read-option? Can Wood in the power game? Versatility will be essential in what is sure to be a two-back attack in September...

Cam McDaniel = freshman spark plug; he'll do some damage if he can catch the ball in space or hit the second level as he appears tough to bring down (bounces off hits) and runs through arm tackles…At a shade (or two) under 5'10" McDaniel is the shortest ‘back (that will play) I can think of at the program since 5'8" Heisman candidate Reggie Brooks in 1992…McDaniel is reportedly in great physical shape, but college football pounding at the BCS level could be an issue if he's somehow pressed into extended action…

George Atkinson needs a long touchdown run early so the super-cool GA3 or GAIII moniker can stick and be relevant…In very limited viewing, I thought he danced a bit too much, then again, he gained 6-9 yards repeatedly, both inside and out vs. the second and third units in scrimmages…Atkinson is already one of the better interviews on the team, jokingly admitting his brother Josh "might have won" when the latter dropped him for an 8-yard loss in practice…Atkinson's functional football speed (I don't care what fudged 40-yard-dash times suggest) is the best among the four running backs and second only to Theo Riddick among 2011's offensive weapons.

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