Three’s Company?

Part I of our two-part series examining Notre Dame’s backfield options for 2015 includes a look back at what’s worked – and what hasn’t – in both the Brian Kelly era and those that preceded him in South Bend.

Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant, and C.J. Prosise.

Or is it Folston, Prosise, Bryant? Or Folston, then Prosise/Bryant? Or could August’s conclusion bring a Folston/Bryant/Prosise job share?

Possibilities for the running back pecking order at Notre Dame next fall are many, a reality that mirrors the majority of the five-season Brian Kelly era in South Bend.

“I want guys competing…I just want to create more competition,” said Kelly when asked if he wanted a ‘lead runner’ to emerge during the spring and summer. “We have some freshmen coming in the fall, just trying to create competition and I think that brings out the best in all those guys.”

He’s had that most seasons, but it hasn’t necessarily resulted in a consistent ground game.

-- 2014 concluded with Folston as the lead runner, but that reality didn’t fully present until an Oct. 18 evening in Tallahassee.

-- 2013 featured a foursome of competitors – none of which distinguished until Folston and since-graduated Cam McDaniel formed a two-back attack in November.

-- The same was true for Kelly’s first-edition Irish, the 2010 crew that began led by Armando Allen, then Cierre Wood, and ultimately a Wood/Robert Hughes combo when Allen was lost to injury.

-- The 2011 Irish backfield is the outlier during the Kelly era: a two-back attack that showcased both Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray, with no legitimate third option. Successful beyond most pre-season projections for 10 of the season’s first 11 games, the operation broke down when Gray was lost to injury on Senior Day and the Irish were thus forced to move a rusty Theo Riddick from the slot.

It was assumed a running game formula similar to 2011 was on tap for a much-anticipated return in 2015 with junior classmates Folston and Bryant assuming dual duties, but that was before Prosise’s spring ascent.

With three promising now in play, how will the 2015 backfield begin, change, and end?

And as important, what’s best for the offense as a whole? Tim Prister, Pete Sampson, and I will attempt to answer those questions in tomorrow’s column, but first, a look at what type of backfield pecking order has worked best over the program’s recent history.

Additionally, does a featured rushing attack – one in comparison to the era in which it operates rather than commensurate to others in program history – equate to a better overall offense in South Bend?

THE OPTION ERAS
With the exception of 2001 – a truly awful offensive team – the option thrived in its most recent stay in South Bend, producing a trio of Top 15 rushing offenses that produced points aplenty. A return to the vexing method of offense is unlikely for the Irish program in the modern era, but it was worth its wait in gold in its heyday. 

-- 1987: 14th rushing offense; 35th in total offense; 15th in scoring
-- 1988: 11th rushing offense; 36th in total offense; 15th in scoring
-- 1989: 8th rushing offense; 29th in total offense; 11th in scoring
-- 2001: 30th rushing offense; 110th in total offense; 99th in scoring

Backfield Pecking Orders: The ’87 backfield featured workhorse junior Mark Green while job shares dominated the operations in 1988 (Green, QB Tony Rice, Tony Brooks, Anthony Johnson), 1989 (Rice, Ricky Watters, Johnson, Rocket Ismail, Rodney Culver), and, albeit with much less overall offensive success, in 2001 when Julius Jones, QB Carlyle Holiday, Tony Fisher and Terrance Howard led the charge.

THE PLAY-ACTION SEASONS
All run-first offenses to be sure, but the playmaking/passing ability of quarterbacks Steve Beuerlein (’86), Rick Mirer (1990-92), Kevin McDougal (1993), Ron Powlus (1994-97) and Jarious Jackson (1998-99) were nonetheless integral to the respective attacks.

-- 1986: 33rd rushing offense; 14th in total offense, 27th in scoring
-- 1990: 12th rushing offense; 17th in total offense; 19th in scoring
-- 1991: 6th rushing offense; 11th in total offense; 10th in scoring
-- 1992: 3rd rushing offense; 3rd in total offense; 4th in scoring
-- 1993: 6th rushing offense; 2nd in total offense; 9th in scoring
-- 1994: 20th rushing offense; 37th in total offense; 30th in scoring
-- 1995: 6th rushing offense; 22nd in total offense; 13th in scoring
-- 1996: 8th rushing offense; 10th in total offense; 10th in scoring
-- 1997: 36th rushing offense; 63rd in total offense; 67th in scoring
-- 1998: 16th rushing offense; 42 in total offense; 43rd in scoring
-- 1999: 26th rushing offense; 19th in total offense; 35th in scoring
-- 2000: 14th rushing offense; 76th in total offense; 29th in scoring

Backfield Pecking Orders: 1986 featured a quintet of runners that compiled between 49 and 96 carries with Mark Green leading the way. The presence of a quintet of contributing runners represents a rarity for a non option-based team.

-- The 1990 (Culver, Watters, T. Brooks, Mirer, Ismail), 1991 (Jerome Bettis, T. Brooks, Culver, Mirer), and 1994 Irish (Randy Kinder, Lee Becton, Ray Zellers, Marc Edwards) likewise featured a bevy of ‘backs.

-- 1992 squad boasted arguably the best 1-2 punch in program history (Reggie Brooks and Jerome Bettis) with sophomore Lee Becton a viable No. 2. Becton then served as the workhorse in 1993 though fullback Ray Zellars and freshman tailback Randy Kinder chipped in regularly.

-- The 1995 team enjoyed a dynamite 1-2-3 punch from Kinder, Edwards, and freshman Autry Denson while the ensuing 1996-98 Irish relied upon Denson as a workhorse ‘back. 1999 was again a 1-2 punch, this time lead by Tony Fisher and freshman Julius Jones, though QB Jarious Jackson rushed 140 times in addition to his 316 pass attempts.

-- The 2000 Irish offense evolved due to early-season quarterback injury (Arnaz Battle) and ineffectiveness by his replacement (Gary Godsey) but eventually settled in after a 2-2 start under true freshman Matt Lovecchio, a better runner than passer.

THE “WEST COAST” EXPERIMENT
With visions of quarterbacks being summarily planted in the turf dancing in my head, it’s relevant to recall the Irish rushing attack in this era was merely a welcomed alternative to the rudimentary passing game featured during the Tyrone Willingham error, err, era…

-- 2002: 68th rushing offense; 108th in total offense; 91st in scoring
-- 2003: 56th rushing offense; 90th in total offense; 93rd in scoring
-- 2004: 85th rushing offense; 81st in total offense; 72nd in scoring

Backfield Pecking Order: 2002 contained a workhorse in sophomore Ryan Grant while both 2003 and 2004 featured a two-back attack led first by Julius Jones (’03) and then freshman Darius Walker (’04), both backed by a broken down and/or ailing Grant.

PRO-STYLE PASSERS
A clear emphasis on the passing game made sense with the presence of Brady Quinn (2005-06) and Jimmy Clausen (2008-09) under center, though the latter pair of seasons suffered by comparison thanks to shoddy offensive line play.

-- 2005: 55th rushing offense; 10th in total offense; 8th in scoring
-- 2006: 72nd rushing offense; 23rd in total offense; 16th in scoring
-- 2008: 100th rushing offense; 65th in total offense; 67th in scoring
-- 2009: 84th rushing offense; 8th in total offense; 32nd in scoring

Backfield Pecking Order: Both ’05 and ’06 were defined by Darius Walker as a featured ‘back while ’08 offered a 1-2-3 pecking order of Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, and James Aldridge. The 2009 backfield was an Allen/Hughes 1-2 punch. The ground games of both ’08 and ’09 struggled mightily.

THE ONE OFF TRAIN WRECK
The whole “blocking thing” ruined any semblance of ill-conceived offense presented by third-year head coach Charlie Weis.

-- 2007: 115th rushing offense; 119th in total offense; 116th in scoring

Backfield Pecking Order: I don’t care…

THE KELLY-ERA SPREAD
A full breakdown of the Kelly-era offenses can be found at this link.

-- 2010: 92nd rushing offense; 61st in total offense; 67th in scoring
-- 2011: 47th rushing offense; 35th in total offense; 49th in scoring
-- 2012: 38th rushing offense; 54th in total offense; 78th in scoring
-- 2013: 80th rushing offense; 67th in total offense; 74th in scoring
-- 2014:  68th rushing offense; 32nd in total offense; 38th in scoring

Backfield Pecking Order: As noted in the introduction above, three of Kelly’s squads (2010; 2013-14) featured disjointed job shares while conversely, 2011 boasted a dynamic 1-2 punch in Gray and Wood.
The 2012 squad followed with an established tiered trio of options in Riddick, Wood, and Atkinson.

Both the 2000 and 2012 seasons stand as recent examples of an effective 1-2-3 RB punch, one the 2015 Irish with Folston, Bryant, and Prosise, plus a pair of mobile quarterbacks, could resemble in a run-first or balanced offensive attack:

2000:
-- Julius Jones 162 carries, 4.1 per, 7 TD
-- Tony Fisher 132 carries, 4.6 per, 6 TD
-- Terrance Howard 75 carries, 5.7 per, 4 TD
-- QBs Arnaz Battle and Matt Lovecchio combined for 98 carries, 4.6 per, 2 TD

2012:
-- Theo Riddick 190 carries, 4.8 per, 5 TD
-- Cierre Wood 114 carries, 6.5 per, 4 TD
-- George Atkinson 51 carries, 7.1 per, 5 TD
-- QB Everett Golson 94 carries, 3.2 per, 6 TD

Could Kelly’s 2015 Irish follow suit?

Tim Prister, Pete Sampson and I will discuss that and more in the conclusion of Three’s Company?


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