Position Coach -- Tony Alford: The program's longest-tenured coach and lone holdover from the Charlie Weis era enters his fifth season with the program and third with the running backs: 2009, 2012 and this fall. Alford coached wide receivers for Brian Kelly's first two Irish squads in 2010-11.
Established Star: None. Atkinson is certainly the lead dog exiting spring and entering August and his stats as a No. 3 'back last season were impressive: 7.1 yards per carry, 361 yards, and five touchdowns.
Camp Buzz: Most of it surrounds Bryant and/or Carlisle, the latter a sure-fire contributor if he can remain healthy. Carlisle has the potential to lead the team in rushing and finish as its third most productive receiver -- but he has to play in a game first. Bryant is the fans' choice to supplant Atkinson, but that's often the case for incoming freshman whose deficiencies aren't yet public. (To be fair, I recently predicted Bryant will lead the team in rushing in November, so I'm guilty of supposition as well.)
The Pressure is on… Atkinson. His penchant for bouncing the pigskin outside rather than hammering between the tackles won't play well in the film room. If the 6'2" 215-pound track star doesn't learn that it's "four yards first" as did Theo Riddick last season, he won't hold the job for long.
The Battle is Between… How about "among?" It might be Atkinson vs. Carlisle for the start against Temple, but McDaniel, Bryant, and even Folston should enter the mix over the course of 12 games.
Wither? Will Mahone. The clock isn't officially ticking as Mahone is a redshirt-freshman, but if he exits 2013 as the team's No. 6 running back, it'll be a tough road to ho next spring. Mahone showed the ability to get down the seam and secure a pass in traffic at full speed, and Atkinson noted Mahone's was surprisingly adept as a receiver, prior. Maybe "four yards first" mentality plus occasional threat as a pass catcher could push Mahone into position for playing time.
BCS Dreams Because... The unit has a home run hitter in Atkinson, a do-everything in Carlisle, a potential do-everything in Folston, a budding star in Bryant, and a reliable, all-around player in McDaniel that might be just as good as he's looked in mop-up time. That's a promising committee, and Kelly has used multiple 'backs successfully in each of his first three seasons in South Bend: Armando Allen, Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray, and Robert Hughes in 2010, Wood and Gray in '11, and last fall, Riddick, Wood, and Atkinson plus McDaniel to clean up late. He'll need at least three, if not four to again be involved in '13.
Cause for Pause: None of the players are proven. Of Atkinson's 364 yards, about 36 came against defenses equipped with a working pulse last season (a 34-yard mis-direction beauty vs. Michigan State and a game-winning sprint-and-dive vs. Brigham young). The same can be said for the hard-charging McDaniel, who earned his keep mainly vs. Navy late and a defeated Miami squad in the final quarter. Carlisle hasn't played since December 2011, Bryant and Folston are freshmen, and Mahone didn't crack the varsity in his first season last fall.
There's talent, but that and a quarter won't buy your a phone call (if you could, you know, find a phone booth) when the bullets go live on August 31, or more relevant, in Ann Arbor a week later.
Take it to the bank: If healthy, Carlisle will be the unit's MVP and like his predecessor Riddick last fall, among the team's seven-best players overall at season's end.