Not as easy as 1-2-3

Similar in stature, Notre Dame's trio of runners boasts disparate skills. Each will play a key role in the Irish offense this fall.

A half-an-inch and five pounds.

That's what separates Notre Dame's running back trio in stature. The competition for carries and playing time might be even closer, and that reality is fine with both the group's position coach, Tony Alford, and the program's man in charge.

"There's enough room for all three of those guys to play substantial roles in our offense," head coach Brian Kelly offered at the outset of training camp. "And I would expect that all three of them do."

The three, senior Cam McDaniel and sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, have each rotated with the first, second, and third unit during media practice viewings. Each receive ample reps as runners, receivers, and in pass protection drills.

And each will likely do so through September's first three contests (perhaps beyond) as the backfield competition crystallizes when it matters most.

"We're all gonna make plays," said Bryant. "When Tarean gets the ball, he gonna make a play. When Cam gets the ball, he gonna make a play. I'm definitely gonna make a play. Whenever you get the ball, you gotta make the best of the opportunity."

Bryant is champing at the bit to make those plays. He earned a pair of carries in the season-opening win over Temple last fall, then, after remaining on the sidelines at Michigan, carried once at Purdue, his final rush of the season.

One week later against Michigan State -- a contest in which he worked with the kick coverage unit -- Bryant appeared for the final time as a rookie, losing the rest of his freshman year to a nagging knee injury.

Folston endured similar disappointment early, appearing briefly vs. Temple and Michigan State (likewise sitting against Michigan and also Purdue) before breaking off a 45-yard run against Oklahoma to set up an Irish score.

Folston battled a calf strain throughout the season's first two months and it wasn't until late October at Air Force that he emerged as a consistent threat, earning 77 carries over the final six contests -- 401 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and two scores the end result.

That taste of competitive game action affords him a slight edge over Bryant when the bullets go live -- Folston knows where he has to improve in order to be at his best this fall.

"Accelerating through the hole once I make a definitive cut," he said of his focus between now and the opener against Rice. "Use that extra gear once I accelerate through the hole. Continue to finish runs.

"I've become better at pre-snap reads, reading out my blocks, knowing coverages, watching defensive spins and blitzes," Folston added. "My game's picked up a lot more in that area but there's still a lot I have to work on."

Kelly offered that while both possess remarkable talent, focus and attention to detail remain works in progress.

"I think with Greg, (eliminating) mental errors and (developing) trust in his offensive line," said Kelly when asked where the pair need to improve. "You have to be patient to let those linemen work to the second level, Greg will have a tendency to spurt out without setting up the block. Cam does a great job of setting that up and hitting it. Greg has to trust his linemen. Not just let his athletic ability take over. That will work sometimes, but when you need it in those crucial situations, he's going to run into an out."

Bryant might not embrace that reality, but he realizes it's essential.

"I don't know. Me, I just see a hole and I want to make a big play," he said. "If it's there I'm going to hit it. I have to learn to settle down and let the offensive line do the work. Go with the flow and make things happen that way."

Each member of the trio destroyed nearly every prep defense in their wake. Bryant believes he'll return to that level of dominance.

"I can do it in college too (run circles around people)," Bryant said. "Just something I have to work on, let the offensive line get in their lanes. Let them build their combinations. It's a process, but it'll happen."

,p> While patience isn't a problem for Folston, achieving a consistent level of aggression could be.

"Tarean, I think just, just take it over," said Kelly of what he needs to see from the "smooth" sophomore. "At times I'd like to see him be more than just who he is. It almost seems like you have to push him than I'd like. I'd like to see him say 'Hey, I'm going to take this position over.' He's really talented and it looks like we have to push him a bit. I want him to decide that he wants to be the starter and not share the ball with anybody."

"I think he has to decide every day that he's going to be the guy."

The Returning Guy

The game-winning touchdown against Michigan State. 82 yards vs. Arizona State. 97 more the following Saturday vs. USC. A career-best 117 on Senior Day vs. BYU.

Cam McDaniel was Notre Dame's impact runner in most games of consequence last season. He's not ready to relinquish that role. In fact, he plans to expand on it.

"I think coach Kelly wants us to get involved catching balls out of the backfield more often," said McDaniel. "I personally took it upon myself to prepare myself to run better routes this season. To make plays out of the backfield and show a different dynamic of my game I don't think most people have seen."

McDaniel's initial advantage over his competitors is a history, albeit brief, with pass protection responsibilities. It's a necessary element of the game neither Folston nor Bryant yet possess.

"That's probably one of the hardest skill sets for most high school running backs coming in," Alford told "Cam had to at some point in his career; Tarean and Greg never had to.

"One big thing is we're working to make them complete players, and we talk about that in recruiting. They have to be able to block, learn pass pro, where they fit in pass protection, then they have to execute the block. They all have to know how to run routes and catch the ball and be adept at that. And then the run game and what they do with that."

Folston believes that while the trio's competition is beneficial, it's not a driving factor as an individual.

"I wouldn't say it raises my level, we all come out and compete every day at a very high level. I'm not at a lower standard that has to be raised when we compete against each other. I would say it's already high, but with them, I guess it's a competitive backfield and it's always going to be like that. Play together, work hard, and love each other."

While Bryant admits pass protection and knowledge of the playbook remain in progress, he apparently possesses the necessary third element needed in Kelly's offense: pass-catching skills.

"I just been catching the ball my whole life. It's just easy. That's all I can say."

His truncated freshman year was anything but.

" I was going through a lot with my knee," Bryant admitted. "I couldn't' run as fast as now. I couldn't get as (much power) as I am now. That was a minor setback for a major comeback. I'm back now and I'm ready to go."

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