Spring Forward: The Next Wave

Brian Kelly's fourth spring practice at Notre Dame is less than three weeks away and Irisheyes.com will have a preview per day examining the 2013 spring session's top story lines. First in our series, a look at a wide open battle in the backfield.

Notre Dame's running back unit has included two constants in each of Brian Kelly's three seasons in South Bend:

  1. Multiple lead and secondary runners, varying month to month, if not game to game, and...
  2. Cierre Wood

The latter has graduated and move on to pursue his dream in the NFL. The former is nearly guaranteed a fourth appearance for this, Kelly's fourth season at the helm.

Just four of the team's six competitors for the season will be on hand this spring, with returning part-timer George Atkinson ranking as the most proven commodity on a unit high on potential but low on consistent contributions at the college level.

'Backs in a Box

A quick overview of the running back situation entering Spring Practice 2013:

Position Coach: Tony Alford -- 5th season at Notre Dame, third as its running backs coach (2009, 2012-13)

Spring Combatants: Juniors George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel; junior (redshirt-sophomore) Amir Carlisle; sophomore (redshirt-freshman) Will Mahone

Incoming August Talent: Florida four-star prospects Greg Bryant, Delray Beach, Fla. (American Heritage School) and Tarean Folston, Cocoa, Fla. (Cocoa HS).

Leading Returning Rusher: Atkinson: 12 games played/3 starts, earning 51 carries for 378 yards (7.1 avg. led the team) with five touchdowns including scoring runs of 55 and 56 yards.

More than 40 percent of Atkinson's total yards last season were compiled in three games (Navy, Miami, and Wake Forest). That's not necessarily a cause for concern as a team's No. 3 runner, but its relevant to note Notre Dame won those contests by a combined score of 129-13.

In other words, Atkinson hasn't proved he can consistently produce under fire, and vs. quality foes, though the west coast speedster contributed key plays in wins vs. Michigan State (a 32-yard run) and Brigham Young (the winning touchdown dive).

His size (6'2" 210) speed ratio is unquestioned, nor is his desire to be great. The hope for spring ball is increased reps will impact his attention to detail (ball security, hitting the correct gap at full speed) to help the true junior become more than a home run threat.

Versatility to the fore

Graduating senior starter Theo Riddick ranked third on the squad with 36 receptions last season. The remaining runners caught just nine total, with Riddick targeted for a whopping 54 of the 64 total regular season passes thrown to an Irish running back in 2012.

The aforementioned Atkinson caught just two for four yards, dropping another pair. His classmate Cam McDaniel (two catches 41 yards) earned his keep in blowout wins, but his history as a spread-option runner and open field style suggests the 5'10" 195-pounder could thrive in the screen game -- an aspect of the offense that wasn't often utilized (or necessary) last season.

But neither McDaniel nor Atkinson is expected to become a downfield threat comparable to Riddick.

Enter January 2012 transfer Amir Carlisle, whose first season in South Bend was spent on the Scout Team thanks to a March 2012 broken foot.

"Last year we talked to the coaches about that and its a position that if I can show I'm capable of, they really want me to play," said Carlisle of the dual slot/RB role to which Riddick was perfectly suited. I pride myself on being versatile, so hopefully this off-season I'll work on my route-running, hands, and I can win that position next year.

Like his classmates Atkinson and McDaniel, the 5'10" 185-pound Carlisle's collegiate production in the passing game is limited. He caught two passes for 31 yards (and a 19-yard touchdown) as a true freshman at USC in 2011.

New Blood Compact redshirt-freshman runner Will Mahone might not remind anyone of Riddick running down the seam, but the 5'11" 211 pounder could forge his way into the rotation if he can replaced an element of Riddick's game that proved equally valuable in 2012: running tough inside.

Riddick was Kelly's short-yardage 'back last fall, earning 18 first downs in 3rd down situations (of any distance), while Atkinson, McDaniel, and the since-departed Wood combined for just eight.

Notre Dame's offense is at its best when a power element exists in the backfield. It had that in Robert Hughes during the latter part of 2010; with Jonas Gray in 2011, and Riddick throughout 2012 (the undersized fire plug was statistically more successful on third-and-short than either Hughes or Gray.)

Mahone is likely a bit faster than credited, but his quickest path to the field, like that of Gray before him, is that of a between-the-tackles runner that guarantees four yards are earned before the remaining 40-plus are manufactured.

O'Malley's Spring Overview

Not as polished as a pair of senior 'backs in front of him on the depth chart, Atkinson saw his late-season playing time nearly disappear, earning just two rushes at USC and none in the BCS Championship game.

He subsequently earned a bit of a bad wrap (or at least a "too early" wrap) as a one-trick pony: a track star without the necessary instincts to become a great runner.

With less than 60 career carries under his belt, that seems a tad harsh.

Conversely, his classmate McDaniel has become a fan favorite for his late-game work vs. Navy and Miami, and to a *lesser extent for an emergent appearance in Atkinson's stead as kick returner at Oklahoma. It's relevant to note Atkinson first gained a combined 222 yards and three touchdowns on just 19 carries vs. the same two teams McDaniel starred, the latter long after the game was decided.

Ultimately, program outsiders can't know what they have in either, as its apparent from conversations that the staff is eager to find out this spring as well.

(*I earned much more respect for McDaniel for his tough-minded -- not to mention effective -- kick returns in Norman than in either fourth quarter vs. Navy or a Miami team that completely laid down.)

Meanwhile, Carlisle ranks among the offense's most intriguing players this spring. Can he somewhat replaces Riddick's production as a motioned or slot receiver? Can he challenge presumed slot receiver Davonte Neal enough to take game reps from a starting receiver as Riddick did often from Toma last fall?

And how quickly the "out of sight, out of mind" phenomenon permeates the college football world: why is a former four-star runner such as Mahone seemingly lower in stature than incoming four stars such as Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston.

In this case, perception is not reality, and Mahone has spring to get a leg up on both, as well as his current competitors for one, two, or even three de facto "starting" roles in what will be a constantly changing running back rotation over the next nine months.

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