The Next Level?

Cierre Wood has been one of Notre Dame's best players in the Brian Kelly era. Can he be markedly better in 2012?


That's the total number of ex-Notre Dame running backs to gain more yards in a single season than Cierre Wood did last fall.

One. That's the total number of Irish running backs over the last 13 years to score more rushing touchdowns in a single season than did Wood in 2011.

1,931. That's the total yardage accrued by Wood over the last 20 games, or roughly since he became the team's lead runner following season-ending injury to Armando Allen midway through 2010.

Add back-to-back seasons with better than five yards per carry (a first at the program since 1995-96, and Wood is a good bet to do it again) and it would seem Cierre Wood is a player from whom the status quo would suffice for 2012.

Only if 8-5 is good enough.

Like stalwart classmates Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, and Zack Martin, its essential to Notre Dame's season that the best from Wood is yet to come.

Senior Steps

Wood has been instrumental in Notre Dame's offensive attack over the last 20 games, scoring 14 times and piling up nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage, but he absolutely must improve in three facets:

1.) Ball Security: Wood has fumbled six times in 336 rushing attempts, losing three to the opponent over the last 22 games. His two miscues last year were costly in losses to Michigan and USC; the latter included an inexcusable half-hearted attempt at recovery and served as a microcosm for the contest: a Trojans player beating a Notre Dame standout to the punch.

The only acceptable number for Wood in 2012, his third season as a regular is 0. No fumbles, no matter how many touches. Great ‘backs don't fumble in college. Wood is already good, but ball security is a controllable first step toward greatness.

2.) Be Better vs. the Best: 35 carries, 106 yards, no touchdowns. Those were Wood's aggregate rushing totals vs. USC, Stanford, and Florida State last fall, three of the five best rushing defenses on last year's schedule.

Wood was a workhorse vs. MSU (#9 rush D), USF (#15) and Pittsburgh (#21), toting the rock a combined 58 times for 259 yards and three touchdowns. It's not all on Wood, as the team's absolute zero level of commitment to the running game vs. USC and Stanford was part of the problem, but at this stage of his career, Wood has to play his best vs. the top dogs. He was strong vs. USC in 2010 (15 carries for 89 with two clutch runs to set up a pair of scores) and will have to be at least that good again in 2012 when the Irish return to the scene of the crime.

3.) Earn it Inside: 2011 breakout 'back Jonas Gray is gone; senior Theo Riddick tends to bounce everything outside; and the team's biggest 'back, sophomore George Atkinson is unproven in every aspect from scrimmage. Add it up and its apparent Cierre Wood will have to pick up the toughest yards for the 2012 Irish:

3rd and 1 deep in ND territory; 3rd and 2 in the red zone; and of course, 3rd or 4th and goal from just outside the 1 -- these must be Cierre Wood downs, especially as the team fights through September contests vs. Michigan and Michigan State, and vs. rough-and-tumble rush defenses such as Stanford (#3 last year), BYU (#19), and Pittsburgh (#21), not to mention trips to Norman and the LA Coliseum.

Until proven otherwise, Wood is the team's "short-yardage ‘back" next fall. He filled the role vs. Pittsburgh last September, an undervalued aspect of a three-point road victory. He'll have to do so again, unless or until Atkinson, who runs with power but at present, too high of a pad level to be a short-yardage ‘back, proves he can fill the role.

Wood's Best in 2011

Wood has played in 26 games/14 starts and rushed for 1,705 yards on 336 carries (5.1 per pop). He's added 359 receiving yards on 47 receptions (already ninth all-time among Irish runners, one ahead of former standout fullback Marc Edwards) while scoring a total of 14 touchdowns, 12 via the rush. He has three 100-yard rushing games to his credit with another eight contests that totaled in excess of 85 yards.

  1. at Purdue – Wood completely dominated the contest with a career-high 191 yards on just 20 carries (9.55 per rush) including a 55-yard touchdown burst. He added 22 receiving yards on two grabs as Notre Dame rolled to a prime time victory in West Lafayette with Wood and wide receiver Michael Floyd doing most of the heavy lifting in a 38-10 rout that moved the Irish above .500 (3-2) for the first time in 2011.

  2. at Michigan – Would have been the game's MVP had the IRish defense held on for victory. Wood totaled a then career-best 134 yards on 25 carries with a touchdown. A third quarter fumble at the Michigan 30-yard line in which he ran into his own blocker marred an otherwise standout performance.

  3. at Pittsburgh – In the most under appreciated effort of his short Irish career, Wood grinded-out 94 yards on 23 carries, all-the-while the Irish passing game bungling his best chain-moving efforts for the better part of 3.5 quarters. Wood converted each of his three 3rd and 2 rushes into first downs (and was 4 for 4 converting short-yardage situations on the day). His determined 3-yard gain on 3rd and 2 near midfield kept alive Notre Dame's game-winning drive midway through the final quarter.

Toughest moments last fall

Both of Wood's worst (meaningful) outings last year occurred when the Irish turned to the pass far more than the running game.

  1. USC: Named offensive game captain for the week, Wood's worst game to date came against his home-state USC Trojans, gaining just five yards on five carries. His 4th Quarter fumble (dropped a lateral pass to the flat recovered by the defense) killed Notre Dame's realistic chance at a comeback victory. Wood lost his starting job thereafter to surging senior Jonas Gray, who was lost to injury in the home finale one month later.

  2. at Stanford: Carried just 12 times for 41 yards with no rush longer than than 13 yards. Four of Wood's 12 carries resulted in lost yardage.

Prime Matchup to Watch in September 2012 – Michigan State: Wood churned out 61 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries vs. the Spartans 9th-ranked rushing defense last season in a 31-13 Irish victory. Michigan State's defense will be the strength of its team next season, especially next September, and Wood's consistent production will be crucial in the first true road game of the season, and what could be the first road start for Notre Dame's quarterback next fall.

Wood on Wood: "If you've never really had anything…I don't know about anyone else, but I'm willing to work until I do have that. I was kind of poor growing up and my mother sacrificed everything she had for me and mine, so I want to make it to where anything she wants she can have. Right now, I have tunnel vision. Nothing is in my way." -- Cierre Wood on his focus and approach last fall.

Final Thoughts

Wood's a potential top-tier collegiate 'back, one I've compared to past runners Amp Lee (2nd round draft pick from Florida State in the early 90s) and loosely to former Irish great Lee Becton.

He's blessed with the rare ability to glide when he runs with great feet. Wood slips out of and runs through arm tackles, is a nightmare in space vs. linebackers, and though not a stopwatch burner, is football fast and has enough speed to take it the distance vs. every defense. He's improved in pass protection (according to the staff) and is a reliable receiver on swing passes.

Despite that glowing review, Wood nonetheless lost his starting job last year (albeit to a breakout player in Jonas Gray). After a September spent answering the bell as the team's top offensive weapon, Wood regressed, playing his worst against USC in mid-October and to conclude the season vs. Stanford and Florida State. No Irish 'back is remembered for exploits vs. the likes of Navy and Maryland, strong efforts notwithstanding.

He's tougher than most credit him for between the tackles as shown at Pittsburgh and in home games vs. linebacker-strong Michigan State and Boston College, but the next step is consistent weekly production that demands 15+ carries per contest. The Irish will use multiple running backs in 2012, but Wood should make his understudies fight for meaningful carries -- last year Gray rightfully took those from him as the season progressed, and you could argue it should have happened earlier.

Wood's not the same threat as a downfield receiver as he is in short zones, the former is a crucial aspect of the RB/slot position going forward. He needs to be a calming influence for a young offense this fall and as noted above, not put the football on the turf. Ever. The 2012 Irish have little margin for error, and said mistakes can't come from Wood or any of the other proven performers. Top Stories