Spring Musings: Running Back

Our review of Spring Football 2012 continues with O'Malley's position reviews, thoughts, questions, answers and observations. Next in the series: the Irish running backs.

Click here for a review of the offensive line.

Click here for a review of the team's tight ends.

The Workhorse

Cierre Wood put forth the 10th-highest single season yardage total in program history last fall, gaining 1,186 yards with nine touchdowns and an impressive 5.1 yards per rush. Wood was the first at the program to top the 1000-yard mark and gain more than 5.0 yards per rush since Darius Walker turned the trick in 2006. Wood's 1,375 yards from scrimmage were the sixth best in one year in program history.

Wood's consistency and production last season has been overlooked by many program followers, due largely to the breakout season enjoyed by position-mate Jonas Gray, who took over the starting job for a four-game stint prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury last November.

Analysis: The best home-run hitter at the position since Julius Jones (2003); the most elusive at the second level and in space since Lee Becton (1994); and the most productive since Darius Walker (2006), Wood now must ascend to a leadership role between the lines. That is: his best games next fall must occur vs. Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma, and USC, rather than against mid-to-lower tier foes.

Wood will have an additional role as well: At least early in the season, the senior will be counted on to pick up difficult 3rd and short yardage as a veteran runner that's no stranger to lowering his pads between the tackles. (He performed this task well in a win over Pittsburgh last year.)

The X-Factor

The same player as it was for the offense last year, and frankly 2010 – Theo Riddick. The team's quickest athlete with the ball in his hands, aside from a three-game stretch early in '10, Riddick has nonetheless yet to produce at the level expected of him by the coaching staff. But if pressed today, I'd choose the senior to lead the team in total touches (rushes/receptions/returns) and finish second to Wood in touchdowns – a big leap for a competitor who's scored just six times in his college career.

Riddick was omnipresent in the spring game and scrimmages we witnessed. He'll be force-fed the football in September and the resulting production will likely determine the direction of the offense in October and beyond.

The Future: If Everett Golson emerged as the universal fan favorite from Saturday's Blue Gold game, sophomore running back George Atkinson III qualifies as choice 1A. The fastest player on the squad, Atkinson can run by, and apparently through would-be tacklers. He's at full speed after the second step and has much better cut-back skills and vision than I'd credited him for entering the spring. Now 6'1" 212 with sprinter's speed, the only thing standing between Atkinson and meaningful carries next fall is a quality pair of adhesive gloves: Atkinson fumbled twice with no contact, inexcusable at any level.

The Wild Card

USC sophomore transfer Amir Carlisle transferred to Notre Dame in January and is eligible to play this fall, but it was his complete absence this spring that might be the position's biggest storyline in Summer Camp (Note: Think we covered every season in one sentence…)

Carlisle can play running back, slot, punt and kick return for Brian Kelly's Irish. Look for the former Scout.com 4-star prospect to be much better in October than in September as he tries to assimilate to the offense.

Support and Incoming

Junior Cam Roberson has yet to play a collegiate down, the unfortunate result of a freshman red-shirt season (in which he was named the offensive Scout Team Player of the Year) and a major knee injury late last March. Roberson's best chance to compete for playing time will be next spring or at the earliest, as the 2012 season wears on.

Two freshmen, Will Mahone and Keivarae Russell will hit campus in late June; both will have their 2012 playing time decided by the same factors:

  1. Talent and ability to carve a niche, as neither will start as true freshmen
  2. Willingness and acumen on special teams
  3. Its unfortunate to note, but also due to injuries at the position. Mahone will be a pure running back and could see time if Wood or Atkinson go down; Russell is more of a hybrid slot/RB option, the role occupied by Riddick and Carlisle.

Roster Rundown

Top Dog: Cierre Wood
Indispensable: Wood
BCS Bowl Level Performers: Wood; potentially Theo Riddick
Most Important that he Improve from 2011: Riddick.
Spring Star: George Atkinson
August/September Sleepers: Riddick doesn't qualify as a sleeper, but USC transfer Amir Carlisle certainly would, especially after missing the entire spring with a broken ankle.

Quote to Note: "I learned so much about the wide receiver position. To be honest, I always thought it was the easiest position – found out that it wasn't. So it helped me out catching the ball, reading coverages, and knowing where the defense would be."
– Senior Theo Riddick on his previous two seasons as the slot receiver and how it will help him in his new role.

5th-years: None
Seniors (Eligible through 2012-13): Cierre Wood (2013) and Theo Riddick (2012)
Junior (Eligible through 2014): Cameron Roberson
Sophomores (Eligible through 2014): George Atkinson and Amir Carlisle
Incoming Freshmen (Eligible through 2015-16): Keivarae Russell and William Mahone
2013 Pledges: None through April 26

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