Whittling the Committee

Running backs coach Tony Alford has some decisions to make this weekend and in the weeks that follow. That's not problematic when it appears he can't go wrong...

"I think we have great depth, even outstanding depth at the position. They are a group of guys that can do a multitude of things. The only thing we do not have is a ton of experience, but you get that by going out there and playing." - Irish running backs coach Tony Alford

Six players, 19 seasons of combined remaining collegiate experience, one football.

But more than one role, available.

The 2013 Notre Dame backfield will with sans a senior, bereft a proven commodity, and, likely, without a 20-carry per contest ball carrier.

Judging them for what they entering the season, rather than for what they are not, is prudent.

"They're just tough guys, I wish I could take credit but I'm not getting hit, I'm not taking one shot," said Alford of his collection of 'backs. "The big thing is they're mentally tough kids. I think that's predominant in our room."

One will start, at least three will play, considering the advent of the Slot/RB hybrid position last season, two will likely see the field often in tandem.

Who will get the call most often and way?

"First and foremost, the ability to run the football within our schemes and how we want them to run the football," said Kelly of a key differentiator between the leading man and supporting cast. "I think if you saw how it shook out last year, Theo Riddick was the No. 1 running back because he ran the ball the way we wanted to play the game last year. So that will be the No. 1 running back.

"All the other backs will have a role within the offense, it could be pass catching, it could be protection, it could be a little bit of both, it could be all those things. It could be a third-down back, it could be a guy that gets us that tough yard. But the No. 1 thing in a clear back will be that guy that runs the ball the most effectively, that is truly the best running back."

One Missing Ingredient

To date, junior George Atkinson has earned his stripes as a speedster. He's turned the corner for 55 and 56-yard scores, he's ripped off kick returns for touchdowns, he's taken a mis-direction handoff for 32 yards in East Lansing, and he's scored on a short plunge that kept Notre Dame's undefeated season alive.

But he's never been called upon to get the tough yards or to lead a group into battle.

"He was a guy that always wanted to turn around and have a built-in excuse as to why certain things happened," said Alford. "His approach (this summer) has been amazing. His attention to detail as to how to run routes, how to navigate coverages, how to break down coverages, he can come back now and tell me what happened. He couldn't do that before, I'd say, 'George why'd you do this?' and he's start offering something and I'd be like, 'That's not what happened.'

"Now when he tells you something, that's what happened. It comes with maturity and he's done a nice job of trying to be a leader in that room."

The room had a leader in 2010 in Armando Allen, the following season in Jonas Gray, and last year in the aforementioned Riddick. This fall it might be Atkinson, it might be his classmate McDaniel, or it might be the relative rookie, junior transfer Amir Carlisle, one of four among the Irish sextet to never done Blue and Gold on a fall Saturday.

"He's a tough guy, he's a tough cat," said Alford of Carlisle. "His ability to run inside is one of the things that impressed me the most this summer. I thought he might be strictly a space-type player. He's tough, he'll grind it out. It's been good he's been able to stay healthy because he has a really good skill set. He catches the ball exceptionally well, he has a burst and he's a tough kid. We've got some weapons in the backfield in that room. We have great depth, its just inexperienced at this point.

Asked if Carlisle has run it the way Kelly desires as did his versatile predecessor Riddick, Alford note, "Yeah. He has thus far in camp. He's probably 8-10 pounds lighter than Theo, but he's a dynamic player, really good hands, runs it inside, tough, smart, understands our offense. You can tell he has spent time in the film room in learning the nuances of what we're trying to get done. I'm expecting him to do some good things for this offense. "

Rookies, Relative and Otherwise

Atkinson enters the season with 60 career carries. McDaniel boasts just 26 and Carlisle 19 -- all as a 2011 freshman for USC.

The remaining trio of Will Mahone, Greg Bryant, and Tarean Folston? Zero.

"Both of those freshmen, we didn't make mistakes with those guys," said Alford of true freshmen Floridians Bryant and Folston. "They're going to be good players, dynamic players for us. We got the right guys."

Asked about Bryant, a player most Irish fans have pegged from action as a true freshman, Alford cautioned, "There's a large volume in this offense and the learning curve is steep. Guys coming out of high school, there's little things they never had to do. Greg Bryant never had to read out what a safety was doing," he said. "Or had to run a route a certain way, or in the run game, know that I want your toes straight down the field and not six inches pointed out diagonally to the left.

"You're talking about a 4 to-6 inch differential that completely changes your second step which changes the whole complexion of the play. Little details like that he's honing in on. He's only been doing it three weeks, but he's going to be a good football player."

On the rise early in camp, Mahone has since been felled by a high ankle sprain. It's an injury that will likely keep him out vs. Temple, but one that could also hamper him in his apparent role as a slot contributor.

Confident Committee

Rarely offered as a potential starting option, but guaranteed to contribute nonetheless is the junior McDaniel. Like Atkinson, McDaniel starred vs. Navy and Miami last fall. Unlike Atkinson, the Coppell, Texas product's best moments came long after the outcome has been decided.

McDaniel is nonetheless certain he can handle the load when the chips are down, too.

"I've always seen myself as a dynamic player. Whether its running the football or catching the football, I think I have versatility," he said. "But what's really cool is that each 'back has something special to bring to the table. And with the offense that we have we're able to maximize the potential of all the 'backs."

Told by a media member in the spring this was his first true chance to compete for a starting job, McDaniel bristled. "To be completely honest, no, it wasn't. When i was a freshman (2011) and I came in I came with the mindset that I was competing for playing time. And I know Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, and they're going to come in with the same mentality."

They have, as have the upperclassmen.

Now one, or two, or three, or all of them will have a chance to prove it when it matters most.

"Regardless of what other people say, we're worried about ourselves," said Atkinson. "Going out to Camp Shiloh really gave an emphasis on what camaraderie is and not worrying about who's going to starter anywhere. We won't worry about that until Temple."

Myriad roles will likely change multiple times thereafter.

Note: For previous articles in our 20 For a Title series, click the links below:

The Edge: Outside Linebackers

Unwritten: Tommy Rees

Legacy Keys: Trio of Tight Ends

Baker's Dozen for Shembo

The Difference-Maker?

Andrew Hendrix: QB2

Finding the Best Five

The Assumed: Sheldon Day

The Left-Siders: Martin and Watt

As Advertised? Tuitt and Nix


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