Third Man In?

The suspension of junior running back Greg Bryant opens the door to playing time for at least one of Notre Dame's freshmen runners this fall.

Thunder and Lightning.

Yes, it's fair to surmise any backfield blessed with that nickname was Notre Dame's for the 1992 season wouldn’t need a whole lot of help from any freshmen newbies.

Twenty-three years later, Jerome Bettis (Thunder, though if you didn’t know that, you might be on the wrong site) and Reggie Brooks remain the modern-day standard among Irish backfield tandems.
 
Including a 28-3 Cotton Bowl bundling of previously undefeated Texas A&M, the pair produced 2,358 combined rushing yards with 25 touchdowns, plus another quartet of touchdown receptions between them in 12 games. (Bettis caught three of the four while Brooks added one of the two most famous two-point conversion catches in program history.)

Rounding out head coach Lou Holtz's Killer B's Backfield in ’92 was slippery sophomore tailback Lee Becton (68 carries at 5.5 yards per pop for 373 yards and three TD).

Both as a duo and as a trio, the ’92 backfield’s numbers haven’t been approached since – and won't likely be anytime soon – in South Bend.

What does this have to do with 2015? Since and including that 1992 season, only four Irish squads failed to receive aid from a freshman runner (2002, 2003, 2010 are the others). And only the '92 crew produced acceptable results offensively.

Kelly's 2015 squad appeared positioned to follow the lead of their '92 compadres, with Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant, and C.J. Prosise toting the rock – no freshmen necessary.

Not so fast.

THREE’S COMPANY?
Enigmatic junior Greg Bryant will miss Notre Dame's first four games this fall, the result of a violation of team rules. The loss leaves Brian Kelly’s Irish with only Folston and converted slot receiver Prosise as “veteran” backfield options. A rookie will now have to emerge, because in Kelly’s five previous seasons at the helm, the head coach's No. 3 running back has averaged 54 carries per season with a high of 88 and low of 9.

2010 Robert Hughes: 68 carries, 300 yards, 2 TD.

2011 Theo Riddick: A slot receiver for the first 10 games (two rushing attempts), Riddick moved to running back for the season’s final two contests and finished with 14 total carries. Freshman George Atkinson was technically the No. 3 ‘back and turned nine mop-up time carries into 27 yards and two touchdowns.

2012 George Atkinson: 51 carries, 361 yards, 5 TD
2013: Tarean Folston: 88 carries, 470 yards, 3 TD
2014: Greg Bryant: 54 carries, 289 yards, 3 TD

Skewing comparisons to 2015 is the likelihood that quarterback Malik Zaire will carry the pigskin at least 100 times this fall. By contrast, only three of Kelly’s five previous campaigns included a consistent running threat under center:

2010 Dayne Crist: 52 carries with 4 TD in less than 9 games
2012 Everett Golson: 94 carries, 298 yards, 6 TD
2014 Golson (115) and Zaire: 147 carries, 470 yards, 10 TD

But Zaire’s total carries in 2015 *shouldn’t exceed the combined total posted by the Golson/Zaire pair last fall, though his final yardage total should – perhaps by a wide margin – and admittedly, another 10 touchdowns by the quarterback would be nice.

(*Shouldn’t, in this case refers to it being potentially hazardous to his health, but it might be necessary. For the sake of reference, option quarterback Tony Rice ran 121 times for Holtz’s Irish in 1988; 174 in 1989. It’s better to spread the wealth.)

Bryant’s suspension turns Zaire into the clear-cut No. 3 runner, an unfortunate reality in that he’s the player the Irish can least afford to lose next fall. Unless a freshmen emerges and earns the staff’s trust, Zaire’s exposure to consistent contact will be hard to avoid over the season’s first four, if not five games pending Bryant’s ability to hit the ground running at the conclusion of his suspension.

And Bryant’s “welcome back” outing on Oct. 3 in Death Valley against Clemson isn’t an ideal place to work out the kinks.

ONE, NOT BOTH?
Freshmen runners Dexter Williams and Josh Adams happened upon an open door of opportunity since inking Irish on National Signing Day. It’s likely Bryant’s suspension was known to Notre Dame’s staff prior to spring practice and thus communicated, in some form, to the incoming tandem in order to prepare them for the potential rigors of August Camp and September scrimmage time.

Aside from Folston’s solid freshman season in 2013, no Kelly-era rookie runner has made an impact in competitive contests, but either Williams or Adams will likely be called upon to do so. They’ll be prepared as such.

Career projections aside, Adams seems the more likely choice for scrimmage time in 2015 because at six-foot-two, 215 pounds, Adams fits the bill of a potential special teams contributor as a rookie as well. (Scout.com rated him as a linebacker prospect in the 2014 cycle.)

Likewise, his downhill, north-south approach is ideal for the complementary (No. 3) running back role. Adhering to the “four-yard” edict espoused by running backs coaches everywhere is key for any freshman backup learning the ropes.

That is, “The first four yards belong to me, the rest is up to you.”

In Bryant’s absence, all of those yards are someone’s for the taking.


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