Notre Dame marched its way to a 12-1 season and birth in the national championship game on stout defense and a strong running game. The key to the strength of the Irish running game was the gifted and experienced tandem of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood. With Riddick graduating and Wood opting for the NFL a hole is left in the Irish backfield. Questions linger on how the loss of 1,659 of Notre Dame’s 2,462 will be handled and who will be responsible for replacing it.
Once thought to be the heir apparent to the Irish’s starting running back job, George Atkinson III struggled at times this season, leading to questions around his capability of being a feature back. Atkinson III rushed for 361 yards and five touchdowns on a team high 7.1 yards per carry. However, if you remove his totals from Notre Dame’s dominations of week rush defenses Navy and Miami; Atkinson III totalled 139 yards and two touchdowns on only 4.3 yards per carry.
Atkinson III also struggled mightily on kickoff returns, an area he excelled in his freshman season, averaging only 20 yards per return. Atkinson III will likely start the 2013 season as the starter but it has yet to be determined if he can take the punishment that comes with carrying the ball 20-25 times a game as well as the blocking responsibilities and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield that the position demands.
If Atkinson III can’t step up there are plenty of other faces who will push to be the one receiving the bulk of the touches.
The primary threat to Atkinson III’s position atop the depth chart is Amir Carlisle. Carlisle transferred from USC last offseason and was granted the right to play immediately instead of sitting out one season. However, that wasn’t in the cards as Carlisle would miss the whole season as a result of an ankle injury.
Carlisle rushed for 118 yards on 19 carries and added seven receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown as a freshman at USC. The one time Trojan is an extremely elusive back who possesses an ability to make the first man miss then dominate in the open field. Carlisle will battle Atkinson III all the way until the season opener for the bulk of the carries and it will be a neck and neck race for the start versus Temple.
Another one of those faces pushing for playing time is soon to be junior Cam McDaniel. McDaniel is a no nonsense running back, he hits the hole hard and follows his blockers, while limiting unnecessary east and west running. McDaniel had 125 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries last season. He is also a key contributor on special teams making him somewhat of a coach’s dream based on his versatility and team first attitude. McDaniel will push for playing time based on his responsibility and overall knowledge of the game.
Another key player in the competition is incoming freshman Greg Bryant. Bryant is quite simply a stud. He’s the type of back you don’t often see at Notre Dame – an SEC talent with the ability to take a game over by himself while carrying the ball 25 times. In fact, the Irish managed to steal Bryant from the SEC. After his de-commitment from Oklahoma, he stated he only wanted to play in the SEC and South Carolina was his leader. After watching the Irish, however, Bryant contacted the coaching staff and committed on his subsequent visit.
Bryant, the number two running back in the 2013 class according to ESPN and Rivals, is physically ready for the college game and once he gets accustomed with Notre Dame’s playbook he could easily become the undisputed starter early in the season.
Also looking to factor into the equation are redshirt freshman Will Mahone and incoming freshman Tarean Folston. Mahone, an Ohio native, did not play last season due to the depth at the position, but will certainly have an opportunity to do so this season. He is a true power back, a skill set not possessed by another player on the Irish roster, so he could see playing time in short yardage situations.
Folston, a Florida native is a speedy and versatile running back. However, the consensus four star recruit can play a host of positions and may well find himself as something other than a running back at Notre Dame. Sometimes listed as an athlete instead of a running back by recruiting services, Folston played cornerback in the Under Armour All-American game.
Folston is a wild card though as he took a visit to Auburn last weekend and is still debating on his final destination despite still being committed to Notre Dame. Should he enroll with Notre Dame, he will get an opportunity to show what he can do at running back in practice, but if the coaching staff identifies a position that is better suited to his skill set or team needs he could find himself changing positions.