Brian Kelly decided to combine the coaching responsibilities for running backs and slot wide receivers in 2012 because he envisions a combined role for his backs and slot receivers moving forward. For the first time since he arrived at Notre Dame, he’ll also have a bevy of options out of the slot with a number of playmakers in the Irish arsenal.
Notre Dame hasn’t had a back with Cierre Wood’s speed in sometime – perhaps since Julius Jones – and last fall Wood started to prove critics who said he couldn’t be an every down back wrong with the first 1,000 yard season for an Irish running back since Darius Walker accomplished the feet in 2006. Wood did, however, slow down throughout the course of the season. After his monster performance against Purdue, Wood failed to eclipse the century mark on the ground in any single game.
With a full season under his belt as a starter and another off-season working with Paul Longo, the sky is the limit for Wood in 2012 behind what should be a very solid offensive line. We didn’t see Wood line up as a receiver much at all in 2011, but he does have the ability to be moved around in different formations. Wood’s improvement as a pass blocker, however, will likely keep him in the backfield almost exclusively.
The one player I felt would benefit from the spread offense the most two seasons ago was Theo Riddick. He just seemed like such a natural fit in the slot position where his athleticism in the open field could be utilized. I expected huge things out of Riddick in 2011, but he struggled in his second season as a wide receiver and started to line up in the backfield more by the end of the season.
Riddick enters his final year of eligibility with only really having scratched the surface of his potential. As we saw with Jonas Gray in 2011 though, it is entirely possible for a player to come out of nowhere after a few disappointing seasons to have a monster senior campaign. Riddick will almost definitely get the ball out of the backfield much, much more in 2012 with such little depth behind Wood and a host of other options for the slot position.
One of those options could be transfer Amir Carlisle. Normally a transfer like Carlisle would need to sit out a year before being eligible to see the field, but there have been reports that Notre Dame is investigating filing a petition for Carlisle to play right away. Carlisle’s transfer was motivated by his family moving from California to Indiana after his father took a job as Director of Sports Performance at Purdue after previously working for the San Francisco 49ers. Should Notre Dame and Carlisle file such a petition and be given a waiver for him to play this fall, Carlisle will almost certainly immediately challenge for major playing time.
As soon as Carlisle transferred to Notre Dame in January he immediately gave the Irish another dynamic playmaker who could carry the ball out of the backfield or create some match problems in the slot. As a true freshman this past year at USC, Carlisle drew rave reviews in fall camp but was limited to 119 yards on 19 carries this past season while being slowed down by knee and ankle injuries. A healthy Carlisle would be a huge addition to the 2012 offense that will be looking to find ways to replace the production of Michael Floyd.
Another option for Kelly and the offensive coaching staff is sophomore George Atkinson III. The California native and son of former NFL standout George Atkinson came to Notre Dame as a wide receiver out of high school last year, but moved over to running back in fall camp. As a freshman, he saw limited action in the backfield, but showed his incredible talent and playmaking ability as a kick returner giving Notre Dame its first legitimate return threat on kickoffs in quite a while.
It still isn’t 100% clear where Atkinson’s long term future lies in the Irish offense, but given the relative lack of experience and depth at running back, it is probably safe to say he sees more time out of the backfield than in the slot in 2012. That being said, Atkinson showed last season that he is entirely too talented and explosive of a player to stand on the sidelines. Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin simply have to find ways to get Atkinson involved in the offense.
Kervaire Russell was recruited as a running back by some schools, but will start off his Notre Dame career as a slot wide receiver. Russell doesn’t have blazing top end speed, but is similar to Riddick in that he is great in the open field. Whether or not Russell sees the field in 2012 will be determined based on how some of the other options at Kelly and Martin’s disposal perform in spring and fall camp. Long term though, Russell looks like he is a perfect fit for the combined running back/slot receiver role in this offense.
The X-factor in all of this, however, is incoming freshman Davonte Neal. After a bit of post Signing Day drama, Neal signed a letter of intent for Notre Dame immediately giving the Irish the kind of homerun threat they simply haven’t had much of outside of Golden Tate over the last 15-20 years. Neal is as dynamic and explosive of a player that has enrolled at Notre Dame since the days of Lou Holtz.
Some Notre Dame fans are bound to be put off by the press conference drama, but guess what? Notre Dame needs players with Neal’s talent if they are to truly compete for a national title even if they might bring a little more baggage with them. That’s not to say that Neal does either, no one outside of the Neal family knows all of the details around last week’s announcement, and personally, the situation didn’t bother me at all. Get Neal on campus and get him on the field and everyone will forget all about the press conference that never was.
On the field, Neal can stretch a defense in the slot or take the ball out of the backfield and run through the open field ala Percy Harvin at Florida. Notre Dame does not have another player on the roster right now that possesses Neal’s skillset and baring injury, I would be shocked if Neal didn’t see the field in Dublin. Given his potential to be a big time playmaker, I wouldn’t be shocked if Neal was wearing a #3 jersey in Dublin either.
In addition to the options the Irish have at the now flex running back/slot receiver position, Notre Dame finds itself with an intriguing albeit unproven set of wide receivers to fill up its multiple wide receiver sets.
Notre Dame knows what it has in Robby Toma – a sure handed, quick wide receiver who knows how to get open and catch the ball when it’s thrown his way. Toma was at his best against Maryland and Boston College while filling in for Theo Riddick with a combined 12 receptions for 128 yards. With Notre Dame combining the slot receiver and running backs position in 2012 though, it will be interesting to see how Toma is used. He is definitely more quick than fast which could limit his effectiveness out of the backfield.
Daniel Smith and Davaris Daniels are both tall, lanky receivers who should be good targets for whoever is under center for the Irish. Smith’s career has been plagued with injuries though and as he enters his junior season he is facing a now or never type spring with the young talent on the Irish roster. Daniels, however, was a candidate to see the field as a true freshman at one point and could be ready to make a splash after taking off his redshirt and challenging for playing time.
Notre Dame also has a pair of incoming freshman who project as outside receivers for the Irish in Chris Brown and Justin Ferguson. Brown and Neal will challenge either other for the fastest receiver on the team with Brown providing the Irish with a much-needed deep threat on the outside. Ferguson meanwhile is the most well-rounded receiver to come in as part of this year’s recruiting class.
Then there’s 5th year senior John Goodman. The much maligned punt returner has had some flashes at wide receiver for the Irish, but has never put it all together. As a senior in 2011 he caught just 7 passes for 65 yards – numbers that would be average for a single game let alone a full season. It remains to be seen if he can put it all together in his last year of eligibility but at a minimum he’ll provide some leadership for a very young group of players.
Notre Dame might be short on experience at the running back and receiver positions in 2012, but they won’t be short on talent or options with all of the athletes they have. The hardest part for the Irish coaching staff will be figuring out just how to best utilize everyone’s talents. I’d imagine Brian Kelly, Chuck Martin, Tony Alford, and Mike Denbrock will be having a lot of late night, coffee fueled meetings in the Gug between now and the start of spring practice to figure that out.