No superstars have graced the program during the Kelly era, but a healthy crop of standouts and difference-makers enjoyed success behind an ever-changing offensive approach.
The Elite: None – Jonas Gray was elite as a senior in 2011 but fourth-string by his own doing, prior.
Standouts/Difference Makers: Gray, Theo Riddick – Unfocused and oft-hurt (not injured) over his first three seasons in South Bend, the affable Gray exploded all over the 2011 Irish schedule in his farewell season, posting 12 touchdowns and nearly 800 rushing yards despite just four starting assignments. After averaging an absurd 6.9 yards per carry as a senior, Gray’s single season of excellence lives in Irish lore among media members: when a veteran player far outperforms his previous efforts, he’s bestowed “The Jonas Gray Award.”
Riddick battered his way to more than 900 rushing yards while finishing fourth on the squad in receptions (35) as the most involved skill position player on the 2012 Irish offense.
His reckless, no-regard-for-human-life efforts at USC (a touchdown and 146 yards on 20 carries) to seal an undefeated regular season should be required viewing for all future (not to mention, current) running backs at the program.
Quality Starters: Tarean Folston, Cierre Wood – With two seasons remaining in South Bend Folston appears on the cusp – not only of joining the pair ranked above, but perhaps surpassing both as a Kelly-era running back. His 2015 season must be one of 10-11 quality starts, not merely five or six as was the case last fall…
Wood’s the leading rusher during the Kelly regime by a wide margin, compiling 2,447 yards (better than 5.4 yards per carry) with 16 rushing scores and 18 overall. He’s the only running back in Notre Dame history to redshirt as a freshman and then later lead an Irish team in rushing.
But while Wood’s numbers are gaudy, his slotting seems accurate nonetheless. It’s worth noting he finished each of his three seasons as the staff’s second choice runner in the backfield despite earning the lead role, prior.
Aided the Cause: Robert Hughes, Armando Allen, Cam McDaniel – Hughes emerged in November of his senior season to lead an Irish power rushing attack to a 4-0 finish…Allen was Kelly’s ‘back of choice as a 2010 senior before losing the second half of his season to hip surgery. He’d have been an intriguing ‘back in Kelly’s system in good health and with the program’s improved offensive line…McDaniel led the squad in rushing as a junior and earned captaincy as a senior.
Couldn’t Carve A Niche: George Atkinson, Jr., Amir Carlisle – Atkinson had his moments (re: Oklahoma 2012) but when a player and a staff mutually agree he should move on prior to his senior season, that’s not exactly “carving a niche.”
Carlisle has found his – slot receiver. After a 2012 season lost to injury, Carlisle started strong as a junior running back in 2013 before a momentum-changing fourth-quarter fumble at Purdue in Game Three knocked him off course. Prior to that crunch-time miscue (Notre Dame went on to win 31-24), Carlisle had amassed a team-high 30 carries with 148 yards over three games. He was awarded just 17 carries in the 10 games that followed.
On Deck for 2015: Greg Bryant and C.J. Prosise. – Prosise’s emergence this spring ranks as the most important (positive) development for 2015 to date…Bryant has been “on deck” for the better part of 18 months. Time to deliver.
Finding a Foothold this Fall? Dexter Williams and Josh Adams – The backfield appears set with three veterans in competition for carries but opportunity generally knocks for a fourth runner over the course of 13 games – the lone exception during the Kelly era was last fall when the program only housed three scholarship ‘backs.
On the Horizon: Tony Jones (2016)
Why They’re No. 7: It’s difficult to rank the group higher with statistics as your guide:
-- 2010: 4.0 yards per carry, 11 TD – the latter ties a program-low
-- 2011: 4.8 ypc. 25 TD – two-head monster of Gray/Wood
-- 2012: 4.9 ypc. 23 TD – the former aided by Everett Golson
-- 2013: 4.5 ypc. 12 TD – solid ypc, but only 12 TD hurt
-- 2014: 4.3 ypc. 24 TD – the latter aided greatly by Golson
In short, the 2011 backfield combo of Gray and Wood was very good and their successors, Riddick and Wood, performed at a championship level in terms of big plays in big games.
Among the three remaining seasons, the 2010 Allen/Wood/Hughes trio first struggled, then shined, but last fall’s Folston-led effort likely ranks ahead of that trio – Kelly’s initial crop of runners.
The 2013 crew (McDaniel, Atkinson, Folston, Carlisle, Bryant) was a major disappointment and the staff deserves at least some of the blame.
Note: The eighth-best overall position group of the Kelly era…