Offensive BackfieldThey're not at the all-star level fans and media projected in August, but the Irish backfield has found its sea legs entering the seasons' home stretch.
Top player to date: Quarterback Everett Golson -- One yellow flag away from serious Heisman contention, Golson's performance through seven games ranks among the program's top four quarterback seasons of the millennium (Brady Quinn 2005, 2006; Jimmy Clausen 2009).
On the Rise: Running Back Tarean Folston -- It took longer than every Irish fan, and likely Brian Kelly and running backs coach Tony Alford, had hoped, but Notre Dame has finally found its No. 1 rusher. Folston's last two outings include 299 yards from scrimmage on 44 touches (rushing/receiving) with three touchdowns.
Sleeper for the final five: Running Back Cam McDaniel -- Why not redshirt-freshman Greg Bryant? McDaniel would enter any contest in which Folston is banged up or underperforms (though the latter seems unlikely). A rational argument can be made that McDaniel belonged on the field during the team's final scoring -- err, non-scoring drive -- at Florida State. He's reliable in pass protection and is as adept as a pass receiver as his competitors.
However, should Folston be lost for more than one game, Bryant would likely get a serious look. As of now, it's clear he hasn't earned the staff's trust in big spots.
Best game as a unit: North Carolina -- Three touchdowns for Folston, three for Golson (sharing one with Folston) one apiece for Bryant and McDaniel, plus a combined 489 passing/rushing yards shared among the quartet.
Most Difficult Outing: Syracuse -- The team suffered five turnovers, all by the hands of the offensive backfield (Golson 4, Bryant 1). 150 aggregate rushing yards from the foursome and a record-setting day for Golson (25 consecutive pass completions) balanced out the myriad miscues.
Toughest Upcoming Test: Louisville -- Far and away the best statistical defense the Irish will face, both in terms of standard NCAA measure and by the more telling numbers compiled by FootballOutsiders.com. The Cardinals front, led by Lorenzo Mauldin, lives in opposing backfields.
Crucial area for Improvement: How about two: Pass Protection and Bryant's overall usage -- Notre Dame's march to the shadow of Florida State's goal line was nearly laid to waste by a failed Folston third-down blitz pickup at midfield. (Golson and Corey Robinson bailed him out on 4th-and-18 one snap later.)
Additionally, its incumbent upon Kelly and Alford (and on Bryant himself) that the talented redshirt be further integrated into the attack. Perhaps lead kick returner in relief of an obviously slowed Amir Carlisle is a good place to start...
Quote from the Coordinator: "I think it's the nature of that room and who those guys are. They all push each other and really encourage each other. I think that's our team in general, but really in the running back room, there's kind of a 'Check your ego the door' mentality. They really work well together.
"And there's going to be times when one of those other guys gets the hot hand, or something happens to Tarean that he gets nicked up and one of them will need to go in there and get the job done and I think they'll be ready to do that."
-- Offensive Coordinator Mike Denbrock