Hammer Time?

Notre Dame's running game has progressed from historically awful, to program strength over the last four years. In our second edition of "The Guts," we examine if Brian Kelly's third Irish squad is ready to commit to the running game as its chief mode of transport on the offensive side of scrimmage.

In lieu of garden-variety rankings of each position group, Irisheyes.com introduces "The Guts" -- an inside look at 10 aspects of the Irish paramount to the season's success. Over the next 9 days we'll examine the following:

  • Interior Rush defense (Previewed Here)
  • Standard defense
  • Downfield Pass defense
  • 3rd Down defense
  • The Rushing Attack
  • Short Yardage Offense
  • The Passing Attack
  • Red Zone Offense
  • Special Teams
  • Field Goal Unit

(If your first question is, "What about turnovers?" they'll be covered within each aspect of the game detailed above. )

For details on each category, read our introduction column, here.

Irish Rushing Attack - Key Players

Multiple veteran, potential all-star pieces along the offensive front? Check.

Prime time lead running back? Check.

Ample, albeit unproven talent in reserve. Check, check, and check.

Consistent success vs. top tier rush defenses…I'll get back to you in mid-October.

Notre Dame's rushing attack has improved across the board over the last four seasons, even the last decade-plus. Its 4.8 yards per carry last fall ranks as the highest single season total since the Lou Holtz era. It's 25 touchdowns the most since Jarious Jackson's final season logged the same to end the 90s. Its final ranking, #54 last fall, was the highest nationally since the tail end of the Bob Davie era when the Irish were a run-first team.

Which begs the question, will that again be the case in 2012?

Four of Notre Dame's 10 best players serve as focal points in the 2012 rushing attack: senior RB Cierre Wood, senior left tackle and left guard Zack Martin and Chris Watt, and 5th-year senior center Braxston Cave.

A potential addition to that top 10 is perpetual breakout candidate Theo Riddick, back in the backfield where he apparently belongs. And though questions remain on the right side of the offensive line due to graduation, its logical to assume the team's rushing attack will be ahead of its passing game a the season's outset.

Five Thoughts on the Irish Running Game:

In addition to the battle at right guard detailed below, Notre Dame's offense must find its "12th starter" in this case, the backup tight end who'll serve as an in-line blocker, taking the place of the traditional fullback in the team's read-option, shotgun attack. I'll have more on this three-player battle between Alex Welch, Ben Koyack, and Troy Niklas as camp progresses.

1.) 66 carries for 150 yards. That's the end-season output for the otherwise successful Irish running game last fall. Part of the problem was admittedly the defenses the Irish faced in the finale, Stanford, #3 nationally in rush defense, and bowl matchup, Florida State, #2.

But at issue as well was the dramatic drop-off the offense suffered without starting center Braxston Cave and Wood's tandem in the backfield, Jonas Gray. Cave is back, and ranked as Irisheyes.com's second most indispensable player in our annual summer list (behind linebacker and leader Manti Te'o), the listing a result of the crippling affect his absence had on the offense last November.

Its imperative not only that Cave stay healthy, but that Riddick, sophomore George Atkinson, or USC transfer Amir Carlisle -- or a combination therein -- provide a similar punch to Gray's last fall. The presence of multiple 'backs is an underrated storyline for the 2012 offense.

2.) Graduated right guard Trevor Robinson will be replaced by either Mike Golic, Jr., who struggled at center in Cave's stead last November, or redshirt-freshman Nick Martin. Robinson fifth among the starting offensive line quintet in our film reviews last fall. There need not be a drop-off to the new starter at right guard, or tandem if both see ample time. Right tackle Christian Lombard seems poised to step in and produce in his third year at the program. His biggest challenge will be matchup the output of departed 5th-year senior and two-year starter Taylor Dever as a blocker in space. Dever excelled at finding and securing opposing linebackers at the second level.

3.) 65 carries for 312 yards, and 3 TD. Not bad combined numbers during back-to-back September efforts against quality rush defenses Michigan (39th nationally) and Michigan State (9th). Consistent success running the football vs. Navy (porous vs. the rush last year and likely again), Purdue (82nd last year but set to be much improved with a solid D-Line), and the two Michigan squads over the season's first four weeks will determine if Notre Dame can break Brian Kelly's September slide since taking the job in South Bend (1-3 in 2010; 2-2 last fall).

4.) The Irish faced teams with rush defenses ranked #2, #3, #9, #15, #18, #21, and #39 last fall yet the offense breeched the end zone via the rush in every game until Florida State kept it out in the Champs Sports Bowl defeat. With at least seven seemingly solid rush defenses on the slate for 2012 (Michigan State, Michigan, BYU, Stanford, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, and USC), committing to the run with patience and purpose will likely make the difference between a 9 or 10-win season or continued mediocrity.

Unfortunately, the staff has shown a propensity for abandoning the run when facing a halftime deficit:

  • Down 16-0 at the half, Notre Dame ran just 29 total times vs. USF in a 23-20 loss. The number marks the third-lowest attempts last fall.
  • Down 17-0 and 17-7 at the half vs. USC, the Irish ran a ridiculously low 14 times en route to a 31-17 defeat. The number marked the lowest total of rushing attempts in any game I researched over the last 30 seasons at the program.
  • Down 21-0 at the half, Notre Dame didn't abandon the run, managing a respectable 31 attempts at Stanford, but the number marked the fourth-lowest of the season (just behind 29 against Air Force).

Three large deficits resulted in three of the four lowest number of running plays last season…and three defeats. In 2010, five of the season's six lowest number of rushing attempt games resulted in Irish defeats (Utah the exception).

Trusting the run, even when the going gets tough, might be a better recourse than putting the game in the hands of uncertain quarterback play.

5.) Absent from the rushing attack last season was the threat of the quarterback keeper on the read-option. Entering August camp, two of the team's three main quarterback options can turn that inherent weakness of Notre Dame's running game (the lack of a second option, aka, a running quarterback) into a strength.

Thus if Rees wins the job over the speedy and sturdy Hendrix, and the elusive Golson, he'll need to be much better throwing on the move than he was last season when far too many designed rolls resulted in bail-out throws out of bounds or worse, interceptions. He can't beat teams consistently with his legs crossing the line of scrimmage, but he can keep them honest with better accuracy and decision-making on the move.

Final Analysis

It's a bit troubling that 1,122 of Notre Dame's 2,085 rushing yards occurred in blowout wins over porous rush defenses Purdue, Air Force, Navy, Wake Forest, and Maryland last fall. So too did 17 of the team's 25 rushing scores. The Irish front and Wood, et al must still prove they can bring it vs. stout rush defenses, but that seems to be the natural progression in Year 3 as the rushing attack's focal points have grown in Kelly's system.

New offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has a veteran group to lean on, with ample talent in the younger classes. But running the football has to be the team's identity this season, not its fall-back plan, at least until the quarterback situation settles as the season progresses.

Notre Dame will be favored or rate as a negligible underdog in each of its first five games, possibly its first seven. I surmised in Part I (the rush defense preview linked above) that one side of scrimmage will be controlled by the Irish in most outings this fall.

Its up to Hiestand, Kelly, and a host of more-than-capable athletes to secure the offensive side as well.

Overall Ranking on the 2012 Irish - #2

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