Spring Questions: Running Backs

A quartet of questions regarding Notre Dame's running backs unit heading into spring ball 2015.

Below is the third of 11 columns previewing head coach Brian Kelly's sixth spring session in South Bend.

The questions are pertinent. The initial answers? Well, they're one man's opinion -- One man using logic and recent history as his guide.

1. WAIT, WHERE ARE ALL THE RUNNING BACKS?
There are two in tow, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, plus two on the way, Dexter Williams and Josh Adams. There's a former pledge playing instead at North Carolina (Elijah Hood), there's a would-be senior who transferred, Will Mahone, and there's a former transfer into the program, Amir Carlisle, whose new spot in the slot, proved more fruitful, both personally and for the football team last fall.

The incoming freshmen tandem of Williams and Adams keeps this unit's need for numbers outside the realm of critical, and none of the team's four scholarship runners for 2015 will exhaust eligibility, but an RB prospect is necessary for the current recruiting cycle -- three over the next two cycles would suffice.

2. GREG BRYANT: NO. 2 OR 1A?
The technical No. 2 runner (second most carries, regardless of circumstances) during the Kelly-era has produced as follows:

2010: Armando Allen -- 107 carries, 8 games played (injury), 513 yards, 4.8 per pop, 2 TD, plus 17 receptions. Allen worked in tandem with redshirt-freshman Cierre Wood before losing the final five games of his senior season to hip surgery.

2011: Jonas Gray -- 11 games played (injury), 114 carries, 812 yards, 12 TD. Gray is far and away the best "No. 2" runner at the program since the Lou Holtz era. (More on that in a future column.)

2012: Cierre Wood -- 11 games played (suspension) 114 carries, 766 yards, 4 TD. Wood was a true No. 2 whereas Gray took over the lead after the midpoint of the 2011 campaign.

2013: George Atkinson -- 12 games (suspension) 93 carries, 555 yards, 2 TD. The rushing attack was more of a committee as leading rusher Cam McDaniel paced the Irish in total carries six times, Tarean Folston did four, Atkinson twice, and Amir Carlisle once.

2014: Cam McDaniel -- 13 games, 77 carries, 278 yards, 4 TD. Bryant out-gained McDaniel 289-279 on 23 fewer carries.

Folston enters spring ball as the team's definitive No. 1 runner and among its top five football players. Bryant enters as the clear-cut No. 2 (there is no No. 3)…and potentially one of its top 10 football players.

His emergence as "1B" rather than No. 2 is a best-case scenario at the position this spring.

3. IS A MOVE NECESSARY?
For the spring, probably not, as Carlisle can take reps as needed, though at present, senior Josh Anderson is the lone returning walk-on that worked as a running back for last year's squad. (*Tyler Plantz is not walking through that door.)

Carlisle would likewise be forced to cross-train heavily if injury befalls any member of the scholarship quartet next August.

(*A shade under 5'9" -- and by "a shade" I mean, "noticeably," Plantz came straight from the dorms to the football team in spring ball 2011 when the unit was in dire need of aid. He remained with the team through 2014 as a graduate student, won 2014 Scout Team Player of the Year Honors, and earned a scholarship last summer.)

As an aside, Josh Anderson will likely lead the team in rushing should the program feature an official spring game in April.

4. DOES AUTRY DENSON HAVE ANY ELIGIBILITY REMAINING?
No, but it's relevant to note that few former players could command such immediate respect as a first-year position coach than the guy who's rushed for more yards than anyone in program history (4,318), produced the most 100-yard games (22, unofficially 23 including the 1999 Gator Bow) to go with 43 touchdowns (46 including the Gator Bowl) to boot.

Denson doesn't inherit a ready-made tandem in Folston and Bryant but it's an enviable coaching situation nonetheless: two runners that won't leave the program until at least after the 2016 season, one established as an up-and-coming star; the other purported to be just that.

They're friends, they're like-framed, and their skill sets appear to compliment one another, not disparate, not identical.

They could prove interchangeable in the lineup if managed expertly -- and if Bryant mirrors the focus and improvement in his third season that Folston displayed during and leading up to his second.

Between today and August camp, aiding Bryant's ascent is Job 1. Ensuring Folston continues to improve is Job 2. As for Job 3? Finding their eventual replacements on the recruiting trail.

Then the heavy lifting begins for a program that can ill-afford a step back -- or sideways -- next fall.



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