The question never has been whether Amir Carlisle was good enough to be one of the 11 players on the field for the Irish. The former running back – who has picked up the Z/slot position well since transitioning in the spring of 2014 – is a productive football player.
The trickier proposition, considering the ankle, knee and collarbone issues he’s had along the way since transferring from USC after the 2012 season, is keeping Carlisle between the white lines.
When he’s on the field, there’s little question that he belongs.
• In the first game of the 2013 season against Temple, Carlisle led the Irish in rushing with 68 yards on seven carries, including a 45-yard run on the first play from scrimmage.
• In the second game against Michigan, he added another 64 yards on 12 carries, again pacing the Notre Dame ground game. After a fumble against Purdue, his carries dropped from 30 in the first three games to 17 over the final 10 games.
• In the 2014 opener versus Rice, Carlisle caught two passes for 54 yards, including a career-long 32-yarder.
• In the second game against Michigan, Carlisle scored the first two touchdowns of his Notre Dame career, catching seven passes for 61 yards, including a one-yard scoring toss late in the second quarter and a 12-yard touchdown late in the third quarter.
• In the ninth game of ’14, Carlisle caught three passes for 92 yards against Arizona State, including a 35-yarder -- a new career high at Notre Dame -- and a 25-yard touchdown to cap a 28-0 Irish explosion that brought them to within three points with 6:37 left in the game.
But there were, for the third straight season, some detours along the way. A knee injury early in Game Three against Purdue prompted him to miss most of that game, plus the following week against Syracuse. Carlisle returned after that, but his productivity over the next month was significantly curtailed.
The last three seasons have led to a pretty simple formula. Carlisle = progress. Carlisle = productivity. Carlisle = health issues.
“Amir Carlisle has probably had the best spring (among the receivers) in terms of growth at the position,” said Brian Kelly less than two weeks before the conclusion of drills this month.
That’s due to a healthy spring and the decision by the coaching staff to keep Carlisle – the former running back – at receiver while fellow slot C.J. Prosise learned a new position, which happened to be Carlisle’s old one.
Why not move Carlisle to running back with Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant the only two scholarship running backs in the spring? After all, Carlisle was a running back when he signed with USC and still a running back when he arrived at Notre Dame a year later.
“It was a discussion early on,” said associate head coach and receivers coach Mike Denbrock. “We know Amir can be a running back if we need him to be. So we said, ‘Let’s put C.J. back there,’ which allowed Amir to really develop as a slot receiver even more this spring.”
Carlisle progressed, and by developing the 220-pound Prosise at running back, the Irish a) found a bigger back to help carry the load and b) reduced the pounding on the slightly-built Carlisle.
“Injuries are part of the game,” said the perpetually spiritual, optimistic Carlisle. “But my mindset is to always give 110 percent whenever I’m out there.
“Unfortunate things happen sometimes, as they have in the past. I just pray for a healthy season.”
It appears to be the only thing preventing Carlisle from a productive season from start to finish, especially now that he has a season and two spring practice terms under his belt.
“Being a guy you put out there sometimes that looks pretty good doing it, and then being the mainstay at that position who can be relied on every snap are world’s apart,” Denbrock explained.
“More than anything, just leaving him (at Z) and letting him develop (was) the key to his progress this spring. We’ve given him an opportunity to not only experience some success there, but experience some failure, too. That allows you to learn and grow as a player.”
A year ago, questions centered on Carlisle becoming a receiver and thinking of himself as a receiver. The storyline has changed.
“Transitioning from being a first-year guy at the position to where I am now, I can have a little savvy to my game,” Carlisle said. “I definitely feel like I’m getting better and learning a lot more.
“This off-season really gave me an opportunity to get in the film room and work with Everett (Golson) and Malik (Zaire) on route-running. There definitely has been a lot to learn. But I do recognize myself as a receiver and hopefully going into the fall, it will translate over to the field and I’ll be much more polished at the position.”
Another area where Carlisle is established but would like to show improvement is as a kick returner, where he logged 35 of Notre Dame’s 45 attempts. Carlisle averaged a modest 21.7 yards per kickoff return with a long of 47.
“I talked to Coach (Scott) Booker about (kick returns) this spring, and we talked about making big plays,” Carlisle said. “I know there are other guys on the team who can make plays with the ball in their hands, but I’m a competitor. I was a kick returner last year, and it’s a job I’m trying to keep.”
Depending upon how frequently Prosise is called upon to play running back will at least partially determine (along with the progress of Torii Hunter, Jr.) how often Carlisle is on the field. Carlisle feels much better prepared the second time through.
“My goals this spring were to refine my skill set, to improve my knowledge of the game and to just become an overall better player,” Carlisle said. “I think I’ve done that.
“Every time you step on that field, you have to take advantage of every single opportunity that presents itself.”
Carlisle’s done just that. Now it’s a matter of consistently stepping on to and staying on the gridiron while avoiding the physical setbacks of the past.