Answer: No one.
Since the NCAA first allowed freshmen eligibility in 1972, no redshirted freshman running back has gone on to lead an Irish team in rushing yards over the course of his career.
Over the next four seasons, expect redshirt-freshman tailback Cierre Wood to end that streak.
And something tells me the confident Wood certainly believes he'll end that statistical oddity sooner rather than later.
"It was real tough," Wood said of being withheld from action last season. "Just sitting there watching and knowing you could be doing much, much better. At the same time, it was a decision of the coach and it ended up working better, for my part anyway."
Scout.com's No. 6 rated running back in the 2009 recruiting class was withheld from action last season, partly in favor of freshman halfback/kick returner Theo Riddick. Riddick has since joined the crowded wide receiver unit while Wood worked his way into the good graces of the new coaching staff with an equally competitive group of tailbacks.
To date, Wood's collegiate resume includes Blue Gold Game heroics (110 yards and two touchdowns including a highlight reel 44-yard score) and a natural enjoyment of the spotlight that accompanies Notre Dame Football. He's a willing, walking sound byte. (Did I mention willing?):
Reflecting on his Blue Gold Game performance: "I should have had like, 3-4 touchdowns, but everything happened for a reason," Wood explained post-game. "If I was in more often I'd have tried my best to score 6 or 7 touchdowns. People know who I am because of my name, but they don't know what I can do on the field."
Explaining his vision as a runner: "I see everything. If something opens up this way, or if something opens up that way, I'll see it."
On the redshirt season … in hindsight: "It never did make sense to me at that time. Coach said he was trying to save me or whatever. But now that I think about it, it was a good decision."
Regarding his versatility: "I feel that my style does fit into this scheme for the simple fact that I can line up out at receiver because I can catch. I feel like it helps being able to run and catch the ball. It's like a double threat."
The latter personal observation will serve Wood well in August and throughout the season:
"We may put a little bit higher premium on the ability to catch the football than another staff would because the running back is so integral in our offense," explained offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. "Releasing on passes, going down the field vertically and also being a guy we can throw screens to, sometimes under great duress."
There's no "I" in "Team"Brash as Wood may be, the hopeful starter knows he has plenty of room to grow, and plans to earn time the old fashioned way next fall.
"We all have our strengths," Wood said of the tailback competition. "It'll be exciting to see what we all can do. I'm trying my hardest to do everything I can do; I'm trying to do the little things right (such as blocking). I'll do my blocking part so we can all be successful on offense."
Wood also offered a bit of self critique in an area of necessary improvement since last fall.
"I've come a long way not dancing (at the line of scrimmage), just making my decision and going for it."
As a non-contributing freshman, Wood acquired a trait necessary for most collegiate athletes. Patience.
"Coach (Tony) Alford told me I had to be patient, but I wasn't trying to hear that," Wood said of his former position coach's advice. "I wanted to play immediately, but in this game, you have to be patient, you have to let everything develop."
Wood has developed enough since last winter to challenge senior Armando Allen for a starting role at some point next season; to serve as a possible 3rd Down back for a pass heavy offense; and, apparently, to add his name to the list of potential goal line ‘backs as well.
Wood was inserted at the goal line and scored the Blue Gold Game's first touchdown on a three-yard burst up the gut.
"I just knew I was scoring even if I had to take somebody with me," he noted.
The latter development is perhaps the most telling of Wood's potential, as on the surface, he also appears to be the program's most recent candidate to function as a true breakaway threat.
In a stat rarely seen in today's game (and not for more than 45 years at the Notre Dame program) the Irish offense has produced just 18 rushes of 30 yards or greater over the last six seasons. Just two of said carries have resulted in touchdowns.
Small Sample Scouting ReportFew things irk me more than a scouting report gleaned exclusively from a player's highlight reel. A few levels above that exercise in futility is a reporter's scouting report formed from limited practice viewings and team scrimmages.
Regardless, I've seen just enough of Wood to offer the following:
- Wood runs with a fluid manner not recently present in the Irish offensive backfield. At first patient then quick through the hole, he's sharp out of his first cut and runs with a forward lean through contact, showing burst in his acceleration through the second level and arm tackles.
- Aside from one awkward sideline route in practice, Wood seemed comfortable catching the football down field.
- Wood has far better balance after contact or cutback than any other member of the running back unit. The first-year contributor could be trouble for defenders in space.
Reminds Me Of...I haven't been able to come up with a former Irish runner as an apt comparison to Wood's skill set. I initially thought of three, but dismissed each, as no one cut on a dime in limited space like Lee Becton; no one cut and hit the second gear one step later quite like Ricky Watters; and Autry Denson appeared stronger, or at least hit the hole with more authority, than Wood, nullifying that passing thought).
If I had to pick one, it would likely be mid-90s Notre Dame runner and future New York Jets tailback Robert Farmer (who was likely faster than Wood), but for those of you that followed college football in the early 90s, Wood is reminiscent of former Florida State tailback Amp Lee in terms of a fluid, effortless running style. (It's a high compliment).
Wood showed one crucial element of his game that needs remedy during our final scrimmage viewing (prior to the Blue Gold Game): A swing pass fell incomplete behind Wood; the pass also landed behind the line of scrimmage (a live ball). While Wood's body language showed displeasure, rather than hustle, cornerback Darrin Walls picked up the fumble for a 60-plus-yard touchdown the other way.
There's no chance Wood will earn a starting role next season with similar mental lapses next August/September.
As noted above, returning Irish players have amassed 30 or more yards on a single rush on just six occasions (twice on fake punt runs by Harrison Smith). Robert Hughes is the only member of the 2010 Irish backfield to notch a carry in excess of 29 yards in his Irish career (560 combined rushing attempts from Hughes, Allen, Gray, and former tailback, Theo Riddick).
If Wood earns enough playing time this season – somewhere in the vicinity of 100 rushing attempts in a true second string role – the elusive sophomore could match Hughes' career total of four long bursts in his first year as a contributor.
That should be the start of a four-year string of highlight reel runs – not to mention post-game vocal gems – from the natural tailback.
Note: For fans of Irish history and stat mavens, quarterback Tony Rice was ineligible as a Proposition 48 freshman in 1986. Rice proceeded to lead the Irish in rushing yards, twice. He was not redshirted – and therefore not eligible for a 5th season at the conclusion of his career as will be Wood and others voluntarily withheld by their coaches from the playing field.