Backfield in Motion

Have a suggestion for Irish head coach Brian Kelly on how to incorporate six viable running backs into his one-back, spread attack? He's all ears…

"Balance is this panacea that everyone looks for, but you need to win football games and whatever it takes to win football games, we'd better be good at it.  We'd better be good at scoring points running the ball, and we'd better be good at throwing the ball when the situations call for it."
--Irish head coach Brian Kelly on the pass-run (52-18) disparity last week in Ann Arbor.

Balance might not win football games at Notre Dame, but if the 41-game Brian Kelly era has one constant, it's that the Irish running more than they pass, does.

The head coach fielded multiple questions Tuesday about a disproportionate number of passes (52) to runs (18). Never mind that 40 percent of the plays sent in to quarterback Tommy Rees were adjusted at the line, the lack of consistent running fell squarely on Kelly's shoulders.

Starter George Atkinson earned just five carries. Opening game starter Amir Carlisle 12. Leading rusher from week one Cam McDaniel a lone tote. The freshmen Floridians Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston? A gold helmet, two long bus rides and some late-night food post-game for their efforts.

"I think it's a possibility," said Kelly Thursday when asked if his freshmen could see time this week in West Lafayette. "The game really will dictate their playing time. It's a different kind of game against Michigan. It was protections (for the running back). It was split out as a receiver. It was a little bit of a different game.

"They are going to be factors in the game plan," he continued. "There's a place for them. I couldn't tell you when or where. How the game unfolds really will tell. They're in the rotation."

Subtraction with Addition(s)

Atkinson showed Saturday night that improvement is needed for him to remain in the passing game (channeling my inner Rudyard Kipling: "Miles to go before I sleep…"). Carlisle appears a dual-threat in the mold of Theo Riddick (if not that polished as a receiver), but he needs to stay upright for more than two weeks before the staff throws any parties in his honor.

McDaniel earned one carry last week. He can catch, run, and block -- likely not better than his junior teammates, or he'd have played more in the Big House.

Wither the freshmen and returning redshirt-freshman Will Mahone, finally in good health after a high-ankle sprain suffered in mid-August?

"It's hard to say. I want to win games. You guys know me well enough that if we have to run the ball to win, we'll run the ball. If we have to throw it…each game is a different opportunity.

"Those guys (freshmen) are talented players. If we need to use those guys, we'll use them. If the circumstances allow us to use multiple 'backs, we have no hesitation in using them. Each and every week is a different team and a different defensive scheme, the way teams want to attack us.

"We have to obviously figure it out as we go," he continued. "We have a plan. All of them are scripted into the plan. We go into the game and figure out how the game is going and decide how we want it to go. (Michigan) had a hot quarterback the other night in Devin Gardner who was making a lot of plays and they were scoring points. It didn't lend itself to playing four or five running backs. Hopefully this week it does."

Asked what might be holding back the freshmen duo, an exasperated Kelly offered, "No. No, they're not being held back. The game itself and the way the game is played will determine how many running backs you can get in the game. I'm not just going to shuffle four or five guys in there if we're in a game where I want to do a specific thing offensively. It really depends on how the game unfolds. I have confidence in all those guys.

"If you've got Folston in, then Carlisle and Atkinson are not in," he said. "We've got to balance it off and decide how we're playing the game offensively. It's not easy. I have no problem playing my freshmen running backs. We just have to find the right opportunities and when they need to be in the game."

Options, if not opportunity, abound

As if Kelly didn't have enough backfield options, enter last year's lone running recruit and a new role earned through his work this spring, summer, and early August.

"Will's back in. He took reps this week," said Kelly of Mahone. "He's playing more the receiver-slot position more than the hybrid, slot-running back position. He's back in trying to get reps. I told him today, it's competitive. You can't make a mistake in practice. If you don't know what to do on one play, you're going to find yourself behind, because there's just so much depth out there."

That depth didn't materialize in Saturday night's loss, Notre Dame's eighth in 10 total outings in which Kelly's offense rushed the ball just 30 times or fewer.

Without a run-first approach, Notre Dame won't have a chance to prove its backfield depth. At present, it exists in theories: the coaching staffs words and fans favor.

"We like them all," Kelly said. "I don't know how to play them all right now. If you guys send me some email on how to do that...just send them to Mike (director of media relations) and I'll be happy to get right back to you this millennium."


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