With quarterback play as a lingering question mark and the search to find someone capable to replace Michael Floyd’s productivity at wide receiver ongoing, the immediate future of the Irish passing game is uncertain. With so many unknowns in the passing game the Irish are in need of the running game to stabilize the offense and provide balance in the team’s attack, something this group of Irish running backs is more than capable of doing.
Notre Dame, like any other offense isn’t as successful when they are one dimensional. Each time the Irish failed to rush for 100 yards last year they lost the game (USC, Stanford, and Florida St.). Although factors such as the absence of Jonas Gray against Stanford and Florida St. and the fact the Irish found themselves in early deficits to USC and Stanford play into the lack of production on the ground, it remains of paramount importance that the Irish get away from their identity when they lose the balance in their offense.
When the Irish offense has balance it negates the defenses ability to exploit the Irish quarterbacks by pinning their ears back and pressuring them. Also when the opposing defense must respect the Irish’s commitment to the run it spreads the field and opens up space for the Irish receivers and playmakers in the slot.
When the Irish ran the ball 35 times or less in the 2011 season they recorded a 4-5 record, while recording a 4-0 record when running the ball over 35 times. Additionally when the Irish recorded 4.0 yards per carry or less they were victorious only once (Michigan State). The statistics clearly symbolize the importance of the running game for the Irish as it is often the difference between them winning and losing.
Luckily for the Irish their 2012 running backs are capable of making the running game one of the team’s strengths. Senior Cierre Wood returns to lead the group, accompanied by standout transfer Amir Carlisle, and electric playmaker George Atkinson III, as well as Cameron Roberson, incoming freshman Will Mahone, and Theo Riddick who has been converted back to his original position of running back from slot receiver.
Roberson who continues to deal with a devastating knee injury, as well as Mahone will likely not receive playing time on offense this season. However, the quartet of Wood, Carlisle, Atkinson, and Riddick has plenty to offer and each will receive ample opportunity to make plays.
Wood will enter the season as the starter on the strength of his 1102 yard rushing campaign last season. Wood averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season and scored nine rushing touchdowns. Wood experienced his greatest success when Jonas Gray was healthy as Wood’s elusiveness and speed paired perfectly with Gray’s power for a true case of thunder and lightning in the Irish backfield. With Gray out of the lineup Wood experienced 2/3 of his lowest rushing outputs of the season.
It is integral to the success of the Irish ground game that Wood run well as he is by far the most experienced back the Irish possess. However, Wood is not the only talented option the Irish have at the running back position.
Amir Carlisle, who transferred to Notre Dame from rival USC this winter, has been cleared to play in the upcoming 2012 season by the NCAA. Carlisle rushed for 118 yards with the Trojans last season on 19 attempts and added seven receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown. Carlisle, like Wood, is a very elusive runner with superb cutback abilities and breakaway speed. Carlisle has suffered a broken ankle this spring but Irish head coach Brian Kelly insists he will return in the summer. Carlisle will be needed to push Wood for playing time just as Gray did last season in order to guarantee the success of the Irish running game.
The third member of the four pronged Irish running attack is George Atkinson III. Atkinson saw the majority of his playing time on special teams last season, where he recorded two kickoff return touchdowns. Atkinson possesses breakneck speed and an ability to make the first tackler miss on a consistent basis.
Last season Atkinson recorded 27 yards rushing on nine carries to go along with two rushing touchdowns. His workload will greatly increase this year though as the Irish will depend on the running game to aid in the speed of the current transitional stage of the passing attack.
The final member of the Irish running attack will be Theo Riddick. Riddick spent his freshman season as a running back recording 160 rushing yards on 29 attempts before being converted into a slot receiver for his sophomore and junior seasons. After Jonas Gray’s injury last season Riddick return to running back for the final two games of the campaign recording 42 yards on 12 carries after the switch. Riddick, like the rest of the slot wide receivers on the Notre Dame roster, has been practicing with the running backs with the Irish staff creating more of a hybrid role for them.
Another skill the Irish running back trio possesses that can aid the passing game is their ability to catch passes out of the backfield. All four of the Irish running backs are excellent pass catchers and that can greatly help the quarterback situation because the quarterback will be able to make short, confidence-building throws, while at the same time putting the ball in a playmaker’s hands. The ability to throw the ball to the running backs also adds a new dimension to the Irish offense as they can throw screen and swing passes in order to help replace Floyd’s production by committee.
Wood has reached the 20 reception plateau in each of the last two seasons, and Carlisle showed great potential catching the ball out of the backfield last season and is regarded as a dynamic pass catcher. Additionally with Atkinson III’s breakaway speed and abilities in space the Irish coaching staff will look to get him the ball in all aspects of the game including the passing game in order to make plays. Finally Riddick’s catching abilities are without question as he spent two seasons at receiver recording a combined 78 receptions and six touchdowns in the two seasons.
With competition ultimately breeding success the Irish are in excellent shape at the running back position with Wood, Carlisle, Atkinson, and Riddick all capable of leading Notre Dame’s rushing attack battling for playing time, therefore bringing out the best in each other’s game.
The Irish will need to show a commitment to the run game by running the ball between 55-60% of the time. If the Irish do this they will truly possess balance on offense and see subsequent success in both the running and passing games during the 2012 season.