First rate: Running backs

There are very few familiar names at running back among Notre Dame’s 12 opponents. There’s only one returning 1,000-yard rusher, and including the Irish, more than half of these 13 teams finished 70th or lower on the ground.

Exclude the option-based programs at Georgia Tech and Navy, and just two of Notre Dame’s 10 other opponents ranked among the nation’s upper half of the 2014 FBS rushing attacks. This is one of the more undistinguished groups of running backs to play against Notre Dame in a season.

Pittsburgh’s James Conner is the class of the field, and Notre Dame’s Tarean Folston is the second leading returning rusher among the 12 opponents and the Irish. After that, you’re going to need a scorecard to identify the ball carriers, although Stanford running backs Remound Wright and Barry Sanders certainly a bell. So, too, does Virginia ball carrier Taquon Mizzell, a former Irish recruit who should have a clear path with the Cavaliers to get the lion’s share of totes over the next two seasons.

Yet six of the 12 opponents ranked 91st in the country or lower in yards rushing per game. Notre Dame finished just 70th. The Yellow Jackets and the Midshipmen will rack up the rushing numbers, but they’ll do it with quarterbacks who handle most of the carries and a bunch of unproven ball carriers behind them.

Of course, running games are about more than running backs. The offensive lines have much to do with the success/failure of the ball carriers. We try to factor that into the equation, although predominately, this is a running back personnel evaluation.

13) Isaiah Robinson (Wake Forest)
There’s no way to accurately judge a running back corps in an offense that averages 1.3 yards per carry with a mere four rushing TDs in 12 games. That’s a much greater indicator of problems up front. But at least Robinson -- the 5-foot-10, 215-pounder that scored three of the four rushing TDs and had the most carries (98) -- is back, although Robinson couldn’t even average two yards per carry (1.8). He’s a guy that will slam between the tackles, which is a start, but there’s a long way to go on the ground in Demon Deacon land.

12) Jahan Thomas/Jamie Gilmore (Temple)
Only 12 teams in the FBS rushed for fewer yards per game than the Owls, and that’s just three years after current Boston College head coach Steve Addazio installed a rushing attack that finished No. 7 nationally at 256.3 yards per game. Current head coach Matt Rhule has a chance to enhance the ground game with three starters back on the offensive line and the diminutive Thomas (5-foot-10, 170), who only rushed for 384 yards, but averaged 4.8 yards per his 80 totes and had a 68-yard run (although zero rushing touchdowns). Thomas also averaged 26.0 yards on 14 receptions, including a 75-yard TD. Gilmore averaged 4.1 yards per his 56 carries.

11) Shadrach Abrokwah/Lorenzo Woodley/Jamal Wilson (UMass)
At just 3.4 yards per carry, the Minutemen’s rushing totals are a reflection of a 6-foot-6, 230-pound quarterback and a line simply not productive enough to create any room for the running game. But the 5-foot-9, 202-pound Abrokwah averaged 4.7 yards per carry and led a tailback-by-committee unit with 573 yards and seven TDs. Woodley (6-foot-1, 212) provides some size and pop, along with a nose for the goal line (five TDs). Wilson carried 100 times in ’13, but just 20 in ’14. He’s comparable in size to Woodley.

10) Taquon Mizzell (Virginia)
Smoke or smoke-and-mirrors? That’s what Cavalier fans are wondering with Mizzell, nicknamed Smoke for his elusive tendencies. The former Notre Dame recruit will have plenty of opportunities now that Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd – who combined for more than 260 carries and nearly 1,100 yards – are gone. Mizzell carried 64 times for 280 yards and two TDs as a sophomore, but managed a long run of just 16 yards. He may be, however, the top pass-receiving threat out of the backfield on the Notre Dame slate with 39 grabs for 271 yards, including a 54-yarder.

9) Chris Swain (FB)/DeBrandon Saunders (RB)/Demond Brown (Navy)
In the Naval Academy’s ground-based offense, the quarterback and the fullback usually are the front-and-center contributors to the rushing attack. QB Keenan Reynolds is back with his 64 career rushing touchdowns, but FB Noah Copeland (952 yards, 5 TDs) is not. Veteran FB Swain (693 yards, 6.7 avg., 4 TDs in ’14) returns, and between him and Reynolds, they’ll handle the bulk of the carries with Saunders (29 carries, 231 yards, 8.0 avg., 3 TDs) and Brown (15 carries, 113 yards, 7.5 avg.) getting a majority of the rest.

8) Marcus Allen/Patrick Skov (Georgia Tech)
When QB Justin Thomas wasn’t running it last year, Synjyn Days (157 carries, 924 yards, 5.9 avg., 9 TDs) and Zach Laskey (171 carries, 851 yards, 5.0 avg., 9 TDs) were. Following an injury-plagued spring that cost them C.J. Leggett and Quaide Weimerskirch for the ’15 season, the Yellow Jackets had to move WR Allen to running back and hope that Stanford transfer Skov (just 12 carries in ’14) can pick up the pace. Freshmen Mikell Lands-Davis and Marcus Marshall both should get opportunities. It’s only a matter of time before this corps of RBs raises its profile in a system that averaged 342 yards rushing per game in ’14.

7) Johnathan Gray (Texas)
Malcolm Brown, the team’s leading rusher in ’14, is gone after averaging less than four yards per carry with a long rush of just 28 yards. Few teams boast a running back as experienced as Gray, who has 455 carries, 2,118 yards and 14 rushing TDs in his career. He’s also a threat catching the football out of the backfield (20 receptions in ’14). With four starters back on the offensive line, the Longhorns should be able to improve upon the nation’s 101st rushing attack that averaged just 3.8 yards per carry.

6) Wayne Gallman/C.J. Davidson/Adam Choice (Clemson)
In six of 13 games last year, the Tigers scored 23 points or less. It was the top-ranked defense that led them to a 10-victory season. The rushing attack was mostly anemic with the 91st ranked ground game at 146.5 yards per contest. But the top three rushers in the running back corps return with Gallman getting about 50 more carries than Davidson and Choice combined. Gallman rushed for 769 yards, a 4.8 avg., and four TDs, and he’s a threat in the passing game (24 receptions in ’14). Davidson and Choice averaged just a hair above four yards per carry between them. With only two projected starters back on the offensive line, it could be tough for the Tigers to shine in the ground game, although QB Deshaun Watson will help offset the difference.

5) Jon Hillman/Myles Willis/Marcus Outlow/Tyler Rouse (Boston College)
Every running back in the Steve Addazio system is a beneficiary of the run-first attack. In four years as a head coach, Addazio has not had a team rush for less than 200 yards per game, and in ’14, the Eagles ranked No. 15 nationally at 254.6 yards per game. QB Tyler Murphy is gone, so there should be more carries for Hillman (860 yards, 4.0 avg., 13 TDs), Willis (459 yards, 5.2 avg., 2 TDs), Outlow (243 yards, 4.1 avg.) and Rouse (214 yards, 4.4 avg., 3 TDs), although they’ll be running behind a completely rebuilt offensive line.

4) Remound Wright/Barry Sanders/Christian McCaffrey (Stanford)
Stanford’s rare undistinguished ground game in 2014 – 70th nationally at 158.8 yards per game and a pedestrian 4.3 yards per carry – was a major factor in the Cardinal’s first five-loss season since 2009. Wright led the meager rushing attack with 601 yards and 11 of the team’s 22 rushing TDs. Sanders should see his 59-carry, 315-yard ’14 campaign expand while McCaffrey (300 yards, 7.1 avg.) is the top receiving threat out of the backfield with 17 catches for 251 yards and two TDs last season. Despite the loss of first-round draft choice Andrus Peat at left tackle, four starters return to help lead a running game revival in Palo Alto.

3) Justin Davis/Tre Madden (USC)
Tailback U. is on a bit of a backslide with last year’s rushing attack accounting for just 160.9 yards rushing per game, although QB Cody Kessler’s nearly 4,000 yards passing, 69.7 completion percentage and 39-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio had much to do with that. Buck Allen was an effective rusher with 1,489 yards, 5.4 yards per carry and 11 TDs in ’14. He also caught 41 passes for 458 yards. Davis replaces Allen after rushing for 595 yards, a 4.6 average and four TDs with 13 receptions and two more scores. Look for Madden to be a factor once again after missing the ’14 season with a fractured toe.

2) Tarean Folston/Greg Bryant/C.J. Prosise (Notre Dame)
Folston has started relatively slowly each of the past two seasons, and the Irish need him to hit the ground running following a 470-yard, three-TD season as a freshman and an 889-yard, six-TD campaign as a sophomore. He also caught 18 passes in ’14. Bryant has vast potential, but has yet to back it up on the field, although he did average 5.4 yards per carry on his 54 attempts. Prosise netted 126 yards on just 10 carries last year, and if you subtract his 50-yard run in the bowl game, he still averaged 8.4 yards per carry. Plus, as a slot receiver, he’s a threat in the passing game. A greater emphasis on the rushing attack in ’15 will enhance Notre Dame’s backfield numbers, as will the presence of Malik Zaire at quarterback.

1) James Conner/Jaymar Parrish (Pittsburgh)
At 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, Conner defines physicality and determination at the running back position. The reigning ACC Player of the Year is a beast and the only 1,000-yard rusher returning on the Notre Dame schedule. Conner rushed for 1,765 yards, a 5.9-yard average per carry and 26 scores, breaking the Panther single-season TD record set by Tony Dorsett. At slightly less than 23 carries per game and 135.7 yards rushing per contest, Conner is a legit Heisman Trophy candidate if the Panthers can turn in a huge year, which is unlikely. Fullback Parrish isn’t a ball carrier, but at 6-foot-2, 270 pounds, he knows his role as battering ram No. 1 leading the way for battering ram No. 2.

Here is the running tally through two positions:

1. USC (4--QB 1st, RB 3rd)
2. Pittsburgh (7 -- QB 6th, RB 1st)
3t. Stanford (9 -- QB 5th, RB 4th)
3. Notre Dame (9 -- QB 7th, RB 2nd)
5t. Georgia Tech (10 -- QB 2nd, RB 8th)
5t. Clemson (10 -- QB 4th, RB 6th)
7. Navy (12 -- QB 3rd, RB 9th)
8. Texas (17 -- QB 10th, RB 7th)
9. Boston College (18 -- QB 13th, RB 5th)
10. UMass (19 -- QB 8th, RB 11th)
11t. Wake Forest 22 -- QB 9th, RB 13th)
11t. Virginia (22 -- QB 12th, RB 10th)
13. Temple (23 -- QB 11th, RB 12th)

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