Projecting the Pecking Order

In the conclusion of our two-part series, Irish Illustrated writers offer both their ideal, and perhaps conversely, their projected usage of Notre Dame’s trio of running backs next fall.

Which way will he go?

As noted often this off-season, the only certainty regarding a Brian Kelly offense from year-to-year to date in South Bend is that change, either wholesale or highly relevant tweaks, will be present.

But with his offensive line the no-doubt pulse of the 2015 program, and with the loss of quarterback Everett Golson’s arm to transfer as announced Thursday, it seems prudent that the Irish will rely upon a consistent ground game to move the pigskin throughout the fall.

But questions remain:

-- Who’ll be the featured ‘back, or ‘backs?
-- How much will quarterback Malik Zaire be asked to run vs. pass?
-- And how many runners will comprise the weekly game plan?

In Part I of this two-part series published yesterday, we examined running back pecking orders of season’s past (1986-2014, which can be found here).

Today, Irish Illustrated senior editor Tim Prister, editor Pete Sampson and I offer our initial thoughts on the face and approach Irish fans will see from Kelly’s backfield next fall.

O’MALLEY: 1-2 PUNCH + THE CHANGE OF PACE
Forecasting Kelly’s handling of his backfield and running game has proven to be an exercise in futility for me most summers. (I’ve been “correct” once, perhaps 1.5 times in his five seasons – last fall and at the tail end of his initial season, 2010. You know, the successful part, but I digress…)

But 2015’s best option seems clear, that is, provided my No. 2 guy in a projected 1-2 punch answers the bell entering his junior season.

Greg Bryant’s ascent is no longer considered imminent, but it is essential, at least for the Irish to chase championship dreams through November.

Assuming Tarean Folston retains the lead role, 2015 would follow a pecking order reminiscent of the 2012 campaign with distribution similar to Theo Riddick (190 carries), Cierre Wood (114), and George Atkinson (51).

In this case, C.J. Prosise assumes the roles of both Atkinson (as a third runner) and Riddick (who caught 35 balls as a crucial cog in the passing game) while Folston does the heavy lifting behind a brutish offensive front – approximately 200 carries – with Bryant earning another 125-plus.

Though not exactly a “1A and 1B” forecast for the Floridians, it’s a job share that would aid the offense over the long haul.

Add to those totals 100-plus rushes from quarterback Malik Zaire and Notre Dame will run the ball appreciably more than it passes it in 2015 – another similarity between this fall and the 2012 season when the Irish pounded the pigskin on 506 of 894 offensive snaps.

SAMPSON: THE PROSISE SURPRISE
Questions about Greg Bryant’s whereabouts have been a constant drumbeat in Brian Kelly’s press conferences the past two years. That interest has been driven by Bryant’s recruiting reputation but also by Notre Dame’s ineffectiveness on the ground. All that should change this year.

If Kelly is asked about Bryant on a weekly basis this season it will be because the junior is producing on Saturdays. And if Bryant doesn’t deliver, don’t expect him to be a big part of the press conference narrative. Put it this way, nobody asked about backups to Zack Martin, Michael Floyd or Manti Te’o. They were good enough to make those questions moot.

Tarean Folston will be Notre Dame’s lead back and replicate last season’s carries (175) but improve on his yardage (889) and average
(5.1). Viewed as a high football IQ athlete, look for Folston to become Notre Dame’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Cierre Wood, but expect a more efficient route to get there.

The hunch here is Prosise and Bryant both play a complementary roles to Folston, neither hitting 100 carries but both knocking out big plays. With Malik Zaire good for another 75-plus carries, there are only so many rushes to go around.

The wild card for the ground game is actually Amir Carlisle. The senior slot receiver has been dogged by injuries through his career, which makes it hard to bet on him staying on the field for 13 games.
It won’t be a surprise is Prosise takes over that job, which would turn the running back rotation into the 1-2 punch of Folston-Bryant that many expected when they signed.

PRISTER: FOLSTON LEADS WAY, PROSISE SHORT-YARDAGE MAN
This was supposed to be the year that Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant formed a dynamic one-two punch at running back following the departure of Cam McDaniel. From the minds of the Irish offensive coaching staff, which added Boise State offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, came the novel idea that perhaps slot receiver C.J. Prosise could give Notre Dame the 220-pounder toting the football that the offense needed.

Fifteen spring practices later, what was once a concept on the drawing board had become a viable weapon as the Irish looked ahead to the fall.

After two years of steady productivity, particularly in the second half of each of the last two seasons, Folston clearly has ascended to the top spot on the depth chart. Folston averaged 7.3 carries per game in 2013 and 11.1 totes per game in 2014. Look for that number to rise to 15-to-16 carries per game with a quick start out of the gate compared to the 8.4 carries he averaged in the first five games of his sophomore season.

Bryant is not lost in the equation. He’ll go from averaging 4.5 carries per game to about eight carries per contest, just enough for him to find an occasional groove. Meanwhile, the Irish take advantage of the weapon that is Prosise, giving him a good portion of the short yardage carries while coming up with some creative ways to get him the football via the short passing game and some of the jet sweep action that proved so effective on occasion last year. He’ll lead the team in rushing touchdowns.

Notre Dame’s offense becomes more ground-based behind a talented offensive line and with two quarterbacks capable of keeping defenses honest as they try to hone in on the three-pronged attack that is the Irish running back position.


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