In Wood's Wake?

Irish running back Will Mahone was withheld from action as a true freshman last fall. He'd do well to follow the career arc of Notre Dame's best ever freshman-redshirt runner, one who's departure this winter will open doors for Mahone this spring, summer, and fall.

Three summers ago, Irish Eyes posed the following question to its subscribers:

"Who is the last former freshman redshirt to eventually lead an Irish team in rushing for a single season?"

The answer at the time -- "No one" -- has since changed to "Cierre Wood" after the 2010 sophomore lead the Irish in rushing yards months later, and again in 2011, Brian Kelly's first and second seasons in charge in South Bend.

That's the goal of the team's current freshman redshirt, Will Mahone, not to mention for each of his quintet of competitors for what is a wide open unit entering off-season 2013.

After a season of seasoning, Mahone believes he's ready to compete and let his natural ability show.

"I think I've learned more of the game and how to play it at this level," said Mahone of his growth since enrolling last summer. "Understanding different defenses, different ways to run the ball. Just being around the team, I have a better feeling and more confidence now."

The confidence equates to a simple, though lofty set of goals.

"To get better and get this playbook down," he said of his remaining off-season. "And ultimately the goal is to start. That's every running back's goal. We're a pretty close-knit group and we're just going to compete with each other and make each other better."

The team's leading returning rusher is junior George Atkinson, a home run hitter who led the 12-1 Irish in yards per carry (7.1) with five touchdowns including the game-winner vs. Brigham Young. Atkinson's playing time decreased as the season progressed with seniors Wood and leading rusher Theo Riddick earning the lion's share of work.

Both are gone, Wood one year before his eligibility expired.

"I actually didn't know that until I got here," said Mahone of Wood's redshirt situation as a freshman in 2010. "He and Theo have been great with me. They've taken me under their wing at practices and stuff, especially in South Bend (bowl practice) when they weren't taking all the reps. They were helping me out a lot. I really like those guys."

Joining the competition is Mahone's fellow four-star Amir Carlisle, a USC transfer who sat out 2011 due to a broken ankle and complications thereafter, as well as fan favorite Cam McDaniel. That's for the spring; summer and fall will bring two more four-star prospects in Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston.

Mahone, like most high school stars, struggled to come to grips with a season on the scout team. Wood did as well, noting this of his 2009 season on the pine, ""It never did make sense to me at that time. Coach (Weis) said he was trying to save me or whatever. But now that I think about it, it was a good decision...at least for me."

It usually is. For Mahone, it helped him learn the intricacies of the running back's role in Brian Kelly's spread attack.

"It was tough at first and i'm still learning," said Mahone. "Its coming better and as soon as I get it down i'll be excited to see what comes."


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