Go North-South, Young Man

The addition of power running back prospect Jamel James to Brian Kelly's 2013 recruiting haul adds a missing ingredient to the team's future backfield group.

When Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly noted he would combine two loosely-related position groups prior to spring ball 2012, it ushered in a new era in the Irish spread offense. Running backs became RB/Slot hybrids, players versatile enough to beat opposing defenses in the passing game, yet purportedly strong enough to survive scrimmage on read-option running plays.

The majority of future recruiting cycles will include such an athlete, the most recent example in the form of 5'11" 170-pound Keivarae Russell for the incoming crop, and planned in-season visitor, 5'7" 160-pound speedster Khalfani Muhammad for the 2013 haul.

But the addition of Katy, Texas prospect Jamel James shows Kelly and his staff still know where their Midwest bread should be buttered.

James won't scare many running down the seam under a pass, or wheeling down the sideline when motioned from the backfield, but he's the first running back recruit of the Kelly era that should come with a warning label:

Caution -- Collision Imminent.

Listed at 6'0" and what appears to be an egregiously low 210 pounds, what James might lack in straight-line speed he makes up for with quickness through first level of the defense, balance into and after the cut, and a healthy dose of anger that accompanies each hand-off. He shows discipline in following lead blockers and adds the dimension and recently lost art of an effective stiff-arm -- one not used only to protect him from a hit near the sidelines, but to beat would-be-tacklers in space and through traffic.

3rd and Now What?

After losing a combined seven yards on three consecutive 3rd and short conversion attempts in a loss at Michigan last fall, Notre Dame reeled off successful conversions in an incredible 16 of its next 19 third and short attempts (2 yards or fewer needed to move the chains). Two of the three failures occurred when the Irish led by more than 30 points (the other was a fumbled QB/RB exchange, recovered by the Irish).

Notable among the 16 of 19 effort: 8 of the 16 conversions were the result of pass plays on 3rd and 2.

The tact worked splendidly vs. two strong rush defenses: Michigan State and Pittsburgh, and predictably against poor defensive teams Purdue and Air Force.

But inefficiency reared its ugly head again when athletic and powerful USC came to town, as Notre Dame finished 2 for 6 in such situations, losing a fumble that was returned for a score, and throwing an interception in the process.

The future addition of James gives the Irish a runner that craves contact. His biggest adjustment will likely be running through said contact at the college level, where inside 'backers and safeties pack more of a punch, and rushing lanes are roughly a quarter of the size of the vacated gaps James repeatedly runs through on his highlight reel.

(James is impressive in his reels, but current Irish 'back Cierre Wood, for example, could have scored on nearly every run shown on James' clips which can be found here)

At Notre Dame, a power 'back occasionally has to make his own hole, especially in short-yardage situations, near the goal line, or as the clock ticks down. In the spread offense, the quick-hitting rush is a rarity, with the runner often receiving a delayed hand-off from the shotgun. James appears capable in this regard, his balance after the cut is an underrated weapon for spread-style short-yardage backs, who often must break just one instance of contact to pick up necessary yardage.

James, who reminds me of current Michigan State runner Le'Veon Bell in his gait and running style, could help the Irish in a limited role upon arrival -- a rarity among recent freshman runners at the University.

At worst he should develop later in his career as the team's "closer" a player capable of salting away leads late in tight contests.

2013 Depth Chart

Most program observers believe senior running back Cierre Wood will test the NFL Draft waters should he post a second straight impressive season this fall. Nonetheless, Wood has two seasons of eligibility remaining. Classmate Theo Riddick graduates following the 2012 season. The following depth chart could await James upon his arrival next summer:

  • Cierre Wood: Potentially a 5th-year senior for 2013, his final season should he return.
  • Cameron Roberson: Injuries have kept him from game action entering his junior season, the latter, a March 2011 knee injury, has his career in question entering August camp 2012. Roberson is eligible through 2014.
  • George Atkinson III: Played as a true freshman last fall and won't be a redshirt candidate unless he suffers an injury any any of the next three seasons, first three contests. Is eligible through 2014 and in position to challenge for the starting role next spring. A potential hybrid player that can play RB or slot, of whom Kelly noted has, "good balls skills, not great…"
  • Amir Carlisle: Played as a true freshman at USC last season and is eligible to play for the Irish this fall. Carlisle missed spring ball with a broken foot, a reality that limited his chances to beat out senior Theo Riddick for what is expected to be an oft-used RB/slot player in the team's 2012 offense. (He'll need an impressive camp to pull anywhere close to even with Riddick entering September.) Carlisle is currently eligible through 2014.
  • Will Mahone: Incoming freshman could redshirt this season. He'll have eligibility through 2015/16 pending that decision by the staff. Like James, Mahone is a classic running back prospect, unlikely to spend much time in the slot. According to their Scout.com listings, Mahone is the same height and just five pounds lighter than Jamel James, though James has a calendar year to add to the disparity in the latter category.
  • Keivarae Russell: Classmate of Mahone's could also be evaluated at cornerback as a true freshman. Russell is in the new mold of Irish running back recruit: a RB/Slot player of whom receiving ability out of the backfield and even down field is paramount. Also eligible through 2015/16 pending his 2012 playing status.

For our other "Recruit Fit" stories, click the links below:

Alex Anzalone

Michael Deeb

Danny Mattingly

Mike Heuerman

Isaac Rochell

Jaylon Smith

Malik Zaire

John Montelus

Rashad Kinlaw

James Onwualu

Corey Robinson

Offensive Linemen Haul

Jacob Matuska


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