Future Tense: RBs

Notre Dame finished 2013 with half as many rushing touchdowns, 500 fewer rushing yards, and with nearly a half-yard less gained per carry than did its 2012 championship-contending predecessors. So why are we bullish on the program's unproven backfield entering 2014?

2014 Outlook: Running Backs

The Irish exit 2013 with six running backs, four of which can return for action beyond the 2014 season. Status quo seems unlikely by the time the team enters August camp.

Departures from 2013: None. The Irish were without a senior runner due in part to a career-ending knee injury suffered by 2013 senior (2010 freshman) Cam Roberson, who never played a down for head coach Brian Kelly's Irish following a redshirt 2010 and spring 2011 torn ACL.

Seniors: Cam McDaniel, George Atkinson (pending reinstatement), Amir Carlisle (2015)

Junior: Will Mahone (2016)

Sophomores: Tarean Folston (2016), Greg Bryant (2017)

Incoming Freshman: Potentially Scout.com three-star RB Isaiah McKenzie who, at 5'8" 165 pounds, has yet to qualify academically -- and would likely see as much time as a slot receiver as backfield option.

Potential 2014 Class Addition: Charles Nelson. Another diminutive runner and Scout.com three-star prospect whose future in South Bend would likely be as a slot receiver. The Irish are unlikely to bring both Nelson and McKenzie aboard. (Then again, if both are qualified and spots remain in the class, why not? Notre Dame hasn't come close to filling its 85-player scholarship allotment during the Kelly era.)

2013 Review

Has such a collection of purported talent ever yielded such little gain?

The unit's 12 rushing touchdowns ties for the second-lowest post-World War II mark in program history. Their final national ranking (80) is the second-lowest of the Kelly era (92nd in his initial season) and a full 42 spots below the 2012 squad's efforts.

Four times the Irish rushed for fewer than 100 yards in a contest (they lost twice). Four more game totals fell below 15 (losing once). Four different runners attempted at least 12 carries in a contest. Each also rushed four or fewer times thereafter.

Inconsistency reigned, except, that is, at quarterback where Notre Dame never pretended to introduce a running threat. The addition of a mobile quarterback to the 2014 squad will mitigate some of the unit's issues, but the onus of the responsibility lies with the runners, the offensive front, the staff and the play-caller(s) to put forth a far better rushing attack in 2014 or another four-loss season is likely.

2014: Youth Shall Be Served

As the late Al McGuire once mused, "The best thing about a freshman is he becomes a sophomore."

Tarean Folston battled soft tissue (reportedly quad strain) early, limiting his practice time and thus game day reps. Classmate and fellow Floridian frosh Greg Bryant saved a season of eligibility by having a procedure on his sore knee that kept him out of action for the final two games of the regular season.

Both in good health at the 2013 season's conclusion, the duo is primed to challenge for a starting role, though leading rusher (yards and attempts) Cam McDaniel will doubtless be a piece of the puzzle.

With the trusted McDaniel and potentially explosive pair of youngsters primed for spring ball, where does that leave recently suspended junior George Atkinson? There appear to be three paths for the team's leader in yards-per-carry in both 2012-13:

  1. At 6'2" 220 pounds with true 4.3 speed, Atkinson could declare for the NFL Draft. He's an absolute lock for a professional training camp as both a proven kick returner and uniquely gifted athlete.

    At his best (Oklahoma this year), GA3 was arguably the best football player Notre Dame had in a singular contest this season. However, the enigmatic junior never came close to producing a similar game as he did vs. the Sooners in late September (148 yards, 18 hard-charging carries, an 80-yard sprint-and-score).

  2. He could return to school to compete in a crowded backfield.

  3. Brian Kelly could choose for him. Asked post-game Saturday about Atkinson's future following a Pinstripe Bowl suspension, Kelly offered, "I haven't made that decision yet."

In addition to Atkinson, wither the future role of senior-to-be Amir Carlisle? No Irish player is quicker to the line of scrimmage than the former USC transfer. No Irish runner breaks fewer tackles on football Saturdays.

As for junior-to-be Will Mahone -- he'll begin spring ball as the team's No. 6 running back. He'd have to make major waves -- and return from a broken foot plus previous high ankle sprain to do so.

Not all six can play a role in the Irish backfield in 2014. A position switch or acceptance of and dedication to the uneven special teams are alternatives (a starter on all four "run teams" sees plenty of field time). And to that the reality that injuries to one or more of the runners are likely over the calendar year and a player could bide his time by showing well in practice daily.

Defection from one of the sextet, of course, is more likely than anything I've posited above.

…And Beyond

The likelihood that Bryant will receive a medical redshirt for 2013 mitigates the lack of a running back prospect in the 2014 class. Bryant is the team's de facto freshman for next fall -- one familiar with the system and most important, the strength program, for a calendar year by the time he hits the field vs. Rice.

But Atkinson and McDaniel are finished after '14. If there's a defection from any of the remaining quartet, the 2015 Irish would have just three scholarship running backs.

The next recruiting haul therefore needs either one "can't miss" or two prospects that can develop to keep depth and competition in good health for '15 and beyond.

Final Grade and Projections

The 2013 'backs as a unit grade better than the overall Irish running game, which deserves no better than a D+ for the past season.

2013: C … The mis-management of the offense as a whole contributed greatly to the grade. I was impressed with both McDaniel and Folston throughout the season; Atkinson only intermittently.

2014: B+ … Though potential abounds, proof is in short supply.

2015: A- … The likelihood that three of the six discussed above will not be in tow for 2015 drops the overall grade from A to A-, pending future pledges.

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