Running BacksThe unit was the team's most improved, not only from 2010 to 2011, but likely at its best since 2005 when Darius Walker, Travis Thomas, and (for a half season) Rashon Powers-Neal fought to the tune of 22 touchdowns and nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards.
Departing: It will be difficult to replace senior running back Jonas Gray, Irisheyes.com's No. 2 ranked player for 2011, a fan favorite, and team leader/locker room voice. Gray finished with 6.9 yards per carry, tied for 5th all-time for a single season at the program while scoring a touchdown in his last nine collegiate contests -- the first nine scores of his career.
- Junior Cierre Wood – A bona fide lead runner at the collegiate level, Wood undoubtedly benefited from the competition provided by Jonas Gray this fall. He'll do the same next season with classmate and good friend Theo Riddick playing often in relief. Wood was the first runner at ND to surpass 1,000 yards since 2006.
- Junior Theo Riddick – Seems headed back where he belongs, and his presence as a one-cut ‘back, and, you have to assume, one that can destroy linebackers on swing passes and screens in space, offers a nice compliment to Wood.
- Freshman George Atkinson, III – Straight-line speed isn't questioned: now let's see him stop-start, run through arm tackles, and hit the hole with authority.
- Freshman Cam McDaniel – Change-of-pace ‘back at present, McDaniel could have benefited from a redshirt season in 2011. The idea for 2012 has likely crossed his head coach's mind, as McDaniel could one day be a weapon in a true read-option offense.
- Sophomore Cameron Roberson – Remains on the long-road back from a severe knee injury suffered last March (torn lateral collateral ligament and partially torn ACL).
Potentially Returning: There are no 5th-year options among the running backs.
Verbal pledges: Incoming freshmen William Mahone (4-stars, Youngstown, Ohio) and Keivarae Russell (4-stars, Everett, Wash.) enter the fray with the luxury of a proven runner (Wood) but no proven veteran backup. Jobs, especially at running back, are there for the taking for a talented, dedicated, focused freshman.
Potential Position Switches: Theo Riddick is expected to return to the backfield – his recruited position under former head coach, Charlie Weis. Riddick played running back in an emergency role vs. Stanford in the season finale and had an extended role in the backfield vs. Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Conversely, look for Russell to begin his career as a sparkplug in the kick return game and a competitor among the young and wholly-inexperienced wide receivers corps.
Hunch: Either McDaniel or Mahone will benefit from a redshirt season and Atkinson will win the No. 3 role, remaining at running back, much to the chagrin of Irish fans who had hoped Atkinson would move to slot receiver. He'll serve a the team's primary punt and kick returner as well and continue to shine on the coverage units. Atkinson, Russell, and Mahone will then wage war on the starting role in spring 2013 when Cierre Wood elects to forgo his potential 5th-season for the NFL Draft and Riddick graduates.
Hunch, Part II: Notre Dame will feature two running backs – Wood and Riddick – on nearly 40 percent of its first down snaps next fall.
Hunch, Part III: There's Room at the Inn should head coach Brian Kelly be inclined to take in a transfer at the position…
Projected Spring Depth ChartBelow is my best guess at the running back rotation entering spring ball:
Starter: Cierre Wood
Backup: Theo Riddick
No. 3: George Atkinson, III
Reserves: Cam McDaniel, Cameron Roberson
Note(s): Mahone and (potentially) Russell won't join the unit until next summer.
Next in our position previews – the Irish quarterbacks.