Notre Dame Suddenly Has A Surplus of Options

theo riddick slot
Theo Riddick is just one of several weapons Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin will have to work with out of the slot and in the backfield in 2012. (Photo - Chris Williams/Icon SMI)

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.

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  1. Reduce the turnovers and ND goes 11-2 this year (only losses to Stanford and USC). I really believe this program is going to be really good very soon. The talent level is much improved to where it was a few years ago. Kelly is getting some speed now (critical to today’s game) and has more depth. I know people are questioning the WR, running back, secondary, and QB positions in 2012 and, while I understand the questions to some degree, I think the Irish will be fine at running back and WR – I really do (yes, they will miss Floyd). I also think the secondary will develop as the year progresses. In my mind the most critical issue is at QB. ND just can’t turn the ball over 26 times and expect to be successful. Most of that rests squarely on the QB. I have confidence that either Hendrix or Golson will take over and play well – and take care of the football. Looking forward to a good season!

    1. I usually take three shots of Dr. Jack Daniel’s medicinal and say “Wait till next year.” three times.

      Admittedly it is not a cure, more of a temporary pain reliever.

  2. jack,

    I hope your take on all this is right. I really do. There’s just something about this whole Neal story, and, no, don’t ask me to pin-point what it is, that doesn’t sit well with me. Call it paranoia. Call it coming to expect ND to come out on the short end of the stick. Call it whatever you want. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if something else happened with Neal that negatively impacted his future at ND. I hope I’m really, really, wrong about this, though.

    1. SteelFanRob,
      I agree with you that I don’t feel comfortable with this kid’s actions. I agree he may not be at ND this fall. I also feel that this kid possess the skill set of one Rocket Ishmail. Rocket was a small flanger/running back with amazing speed. This kid could give a punt return spark that this team needs. Unlike most people on this board I believe ND is a QB and special teams hick up away from being a BCS team. Call me an optomist but the two areas last year which were a mess were the QB position and the punt return team. Cure those problems and they don’t lose games or put themselves in the position to lose games. The defense front 7 is good, LB’s are good, secondary is a question. Offense is a different story, QB?, RB depth?, WR’s?. The only area I feel comfortable is the O-line.

      1. Seems like you think we are more than a QB and special teams away based on your last few sentences.

  3. Now, young Mr. Neal has withdrawn from his high school. If he doesn’t graduate or get his GED, he will not be playing for ND or anyone else next season. I can’t help but wonder if this is not just Neal’s way of going against his father’s wishes and not going to ND. This just doesn’t feel right to me. But, then again, nothing Neal has done the last few months (e.g., waiting until almost s full month after NSD to commit, standing up those elementary school kids, telling his best friend and AZ commit that he’d be joining him, etc.) adds up for me.

    Let’s just hope this kid gets his act together soon.

    1. SteelfanRob,

      He transferred schools to focus on his studies. AKA his father wanted him away from his friend. If you study the history of Mr. Neal he didn’t get his act together until he moved to AZ and the father took over. I think his father did not want him at AZ because it is a large school and not much control over the atheletes. He wanted him at ND which is a small school in a small town in which he can monitored by a coaching staff and good student body. Is this right? I don’t know but it is what his father wants for him and his father is the one that has gotten him on the straight and narrow and doesn’t want it screwed up now.

  4. New rules for college football 2012

    -Kickoffs moved up to the 35 yardline.
    -Touchbacks on free kicks come out to the 25 yardline.
    -Any player who loses his helmet must sit out one play.
    -Offensive players within the tackle box who are not in motion may still be
    allowed to block below the waist or below the waist with streight ahead blocking.
    -Players are No longer allowed to climb or jump over down linemen in an attemp to block punts or fieldgoals.

    How will these rule changes affect ND?

    What I see is that we never got many touchbacks anyway, so moving up 5 yards couldn’t hurt.
    Then agian, George Atkinson seems to have a talent for returning kickoffs so in that regard it looks like it could limit us some on big return plays.

    Lose your helmet and sit out a play? Sounds like a “no brainer” (no pun intended) with all the understanding now available on concuscions and head trauma.
    But what if someone rips off your best players helmet just to get him out of the game on a crutial play?
    (Will have to wait and see on this one.)

    Blocking below the waist. This has always been a biggie for me.
    Yes, there are times (short yardage, goal line) when a submarine or dive block is needed. Streight ahead, man on man, I can live with as well.
    But some of these blocking schemes employed by the likes of Air Force and Navy are down right “Career enders” for many defensive lineman.
    (I guess even if it helps those guys even a little I’m for it.)

    Not allowed to jump over the backs of linemen in order to block kicks.
    I guess since ND never blocked any kicks anyway, I never viewed this as a big deal.
    Most blocked kicks come from off the edge or by an interior linemen anyway.
    I guess if we had someone talented enough to do this I might think differtly about it.

  5. As long as the players can stay out of trouble off the field and the coaching staff can get into the players heads on the field, 2012 could be a VERY remarkable year. There are ALWAYS “what if’s” but you have to look at the positive and hope the negative is non-issue enough to not make a difference. Coaching and players HAVE to gel to make it all work.

  6. Great article, Frank. The options are plentiful; the opportunities await several.

    This challenge for Coach Kelly and his new offense staff is unique to his two previous Springs.

    It’s on the offense this year to score much more and the front seven to pressure until the new CBs develop.

    We have the talent in which we can beat anyone on the schedule, but can lose to most as well.

  7. Run Cam Run. Give Cam McDaniel a chance. He can play. Forget being the next Toby Gerhart or Peyton Hillis, this kid can straight up run with the football. It would be a complete tradgedy to convert him to a full back (like the fate of so many other white RB’s). It took courage to recruit kids like Gerhart or Rex Burkhead and give them a chance to play the positions they were recruited for. Cam got some early PT as a freshman, let him run. Run Cam Run!!!!!!!!!!

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