Best of the Best: Running Backs

Three runners make up our list of five Kelly-era running backs as our Best of the Best series continues...

Our summer preview series (95 consecutive days of Irish articles leading up to the outset of August camp) begins on May 1. Until then, we'll take a look back and the best of the best during the four-season Brian Kelly era in South Bend.

We'll even take time to examine the flip side of that equation.

Next in the series: Kelly's five best single-season running back performances:

#1 -- Theo Riddick 2012

Part running back, part slot receiver, all-time reliable…

Riddick's combined totals (917 rushing yards, 370 receiving yards, seven total touchdowns) are impressive, but it was the timing -- the repeated game-clinching and winning moments -- of his efforts that cemented his spot atop this list.

- An 11-yard rush on 2nd and 9 to set up the game-winning field goal vs. Purdue, a 20-17 Irish victory.

- An 8-yard gain on 3rd and 8 vs. Michigan to put the Wolverines on ice, 13-6.

- A 16-yard reception on 3rd and 8 -- this time after a remarkable twisting, diving back shoulder grab in overtime -- to set up Notre Dame's game-winning score vs. Stanford, 20-13 OT.

-- A 15-yard touchdown scamper on 3rd and 5 to put down the Sooners in Norman.

-- A 5-yard touchdown reception with just over two minutes remaining to tie Pittsburgh (along with an Everett Golson two-point conversion) en route to a triple overtime victory.

-- And finally, the tour de force of the Irish season: 20 carries, 146 yards, and Notre Dame's only touchdown in a 22-13 BCS clincher at USC -- the best game, considering the stakes, for any Irish runner since Lee Becton kept the Irish alive for a national title vs. Texas A&M in the 1994 Cotton Bowl.

Riddick's effort vs. the Trojans included carries of 12, 7, 9 (TD), 15, 7, 9, 8, 6, 20, and 13 yards, most of which involved the senior battering ram careening off would-be tacklers.

Said Kelly of Riddick's effort at the Coliseum: "If you want to know about the Fighting Irish, you just need to look at Theo Riddick. Here's a guy that was a wide receiver for me the first two years. We asked him to move back to running back and in Game 12, he managed 146 yards, but he broke countless tackles and gave us the tough yards we needed today.

"If you look at his jersey (stained and muddied) after the game, there's no wonder why this team has the toughness that it does."

Winning plays in a season defined by inches. Theo Riddick came up with most of them.

Riddick would not be denied when the chips were down

#2 -- Jonas Gray 2011

A late-season knee injury, an opening week fumble (heard-round-the-world), and limited opportunity in September likely kept Gray, the feel-good story of a season that was replete with disappointment, from ranking as the No. 1 single-season runner of the Kelly era.

At his best, Gray was just that, and from Game 4 (at Pittsburgh) through his second half injury on Senior Day against Boston College (Game 11), Gray might have been Notre Dame's best overall football player in 2011, including Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert.

Gray produced 640 of his 791 rushing yards during the aforementioned 7.5 game stretch, accruing 12 touchdowns on just 92 carries. During that span, Gray averaged a whopping 6.9 yards per carry and scored a touchdown in each of the eight games. His final 3.5 games prior to injury show totals of 358 yards and seven touchdowns on 63 carries. After more than a half-season spent as Cierre Wood's backup, Gray emerged as Notre Dame's leading man.

Was Gray more dynamic in 2011 than was Riddick in 2012? Yes. But Riddick was the crunch-time workhorse -- rushing and receiving -- on a championship-level team, and his best effort as a collegian came in a contest that propelled Notre Dame to the BCS Championship game.

In sports, and in life, timing is everything.

#3 -- Cierre Wood 2011

Wood served as part of a backfield tandem during his entire three-year playing career, all of which spanned the Kelly era. His best season, his junior year of 2011, produced the highest single-season rushing total by a runner in Kelly's four seasons: 1,102 yards on 217 carries (also a Kelly-era best) with nine touchdowns.

Wood added 27 receptions for 189 yards, relevant in that his final season of 2012 (below) included just five receptions.

He shined early in a rivalry matchup vs. Michigan (25 carries, 134 yards, 1 TD, 1 fumble -- easily the best, big game of his Irish career), contributed two scores vs. a stout Michigan State defense one week later, produced crucial late gains in a 15-12 win at Pittsburgh (23 carries for a hard earned 94), and dominated a hapless Purdue defense, ripping through the Boilers for 191 yards and a score on 20 carries.

Why No. 3 and not higher?

October 18, 2011. USC -- Five carries, five yards, and a fumble he never bothered to chase after.

Wood lost his starting job after his no-show in Notre Dame's biggest game and didn't reemerge in the starting lineup until Gray was lost to injury. Facing Stanford, and with the offensive output predicated on his performance, Wood managed just 41 yards on 12 rushes vs. the Cardinal.

Statistics favor Wood in 2011. Winning contributions when the chips were down go to the pair listed above him.

#4 -- Cierre Wood 2012

Finished second on the 12-1 squad with 742 rushing yards on 114 carries while ranking fourth in rushing scores (4) and oddly disappearing from the passing attack, recording just 5 receptions for 25 yards over 13 games.

Wood's notable highlight came in Notre Dame's most impressive victory, a 62-yard touchdown scamper through the heart of Oklahoma's defense to stake the Irish to a 7-0 advantage in a game they never trailed en route to a 30-13 conquering of the Sooners in Norman. (He tied Riddick with 74 yards as the game's top rusher.)

Wood's top statistical efforts included 114 yards on 18 carries in a 17-14 win over Brigham Young, 118 yards and two touchdowns in a blowout win over Miami in Chicago, and a Senior Day explosion of 150 yards on 11 carries that included a career-best 78-yard touchdown run over Wake Forest.

But it was one fourth quarter drive in East Lansing that established Wood as a crucial part of an offense that would rely on Riddick, tight end Tyler Eifert, and later, quarterback Everett Golson as its key cogs:

After missing the season's first two contests due to suspension, Wood gave his offense a late lift, taking consecutive carries from the shadow of the Irish goal line, first for nine yards, then 26 -- the latter including a ridiculous jump cut in space -- to give Notre Dame breathing room en route to a 12-play, 84-yard drive that took the game clock from 13 minutes to 6:21 and stretched the Irish lead to an insurmountable 14 points.

Later that season, Wood's 13-carry, 70-yard effort vs. Pittsburgh was nearly marred by the worst fumble of his college career -- a goal line miscue in overtime that nearly cost the Irish a chance to play for the national championship.

It's likewise notable, however, that Wood's 12 carry, 66-yard effort vs. Stanford in an overtime head-knocker where every yard counted should't be overlooked. It's arguable Wood's "disappointing" season in 2012 was more valuable in Irish lore than his 1,000-plus yard campaign in 2011.

Wood produced more yards than any 'back in the Kelly era

#5 -- Cierre Wood 2010

Combined for 773 rushing/receiving yards on 139 touches, includes 20 receptions, for five touchdowns -- and in just five starts, to boot.

As a redshirt-freshman the first former redshirt to lead a Notre Dame team in rushing since freshmen became eligible in 1972 -- Wood backed up senior Armando Allen in seven of the season's first eight games before the latter was lost to hip surgery.

He became the offensive focal point thereafter.

Wood averaged 5.06 yards per carry for the season and concluded his rookie campaign accruing 71 yards on 19 carries in a home upset over Utah, 88 yards on 14 carries vs. Army, 89 yards on 15 rushes at USC, and 81 yards on 12 carries with a 38-yard touchdown sprint over the Hurricanes.

In Notre Dame's loss to Tulsa that preceded the 4-0 finish, Wood scored two touchdowns -- both on receptions, the only two receiving scores of his college career -- and totaled a combined 115 rushing/receiving yards on 21 touches.

But an early four game stretch (Games 2-5) waylaid Wood's overall season totals. In that span Wood carried just 10 times for 19 yards as the Irish lost to Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford (0 rushing attempts) before rebounding to win at Boston College.

Wood gained a combined 128 yards on 18 carries over the next two weeks in wins over Pittsburgh and Western Michigan (11 carries, 94 yards), unofficially re-starting his rookie season.

Hughes saved his best for last in 2010

Honorable Mention

-- Cam McDaniel 2013: Led the Irish with 705 yards on 152 carries and tied for the team lead with three rushing scores. McDaniel was the team's top runner in wins over Purdue, Michigan State (the game-winning touchdown), Arizona State, USC, and Brigham Young -- games in which the Irish prevailed by 7, 4, 3, 4, and 4 points, respectively.

-- Armando Allen 2010: Finished second on Kelly's first squad with 514 rushing yards on 107 carries, all of which came before his season-ending hip surgery in late October. Allen combined for 153 rushing yards and a touchdown on 46 carries vs. Big 10 foes Purdue, Michigan, and Michigan State to begin the season (he added six catches for 70 yards vs. the Spartans), and totaling another 116 combined rushing/receiving yards with a touchdown at Boston College.

Allen lead the Irish in rushing yards in each of his six games as a starter in 2010.

-- Robert Hughes 2010: Finished his senior season with just 68 carries for 300 yards and two scores, but it was the conclusion of Hughes' career that deserves mention: three games, 47 carries, 189 yards, two touchdowns, and three victories including wins at USC and against Miami, with the win against the Trojans snapping Notre Dame's eight-game losing skid to the Men of Troy.

Hughes ran with power in his final appearances in an Irish uniform, endearing him to the fan base prior to graduation.

Next in our Best of the Best series: The Kelly era tight ends.

Previously in the series: Wide Receivers

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