Notre Dame Has Questions in Backfield for ’13

George Atkinson - 2013 Notre Dame Running Back
ast Lansing, MI, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back George Atkinson III (4) runs the ball as Michigan State Spartan defenders pursue during the first half at Spartan Stadium. (Photo: Mike Carter / USA TODAY Sports)

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.


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  1. I agree with the comments about Cam McDaniel. I believe he is a real talent and would like to see him touch the ball more. I don’t know that he is a feature back that can handle 25-30 touches a game, but I do think he can be a real asset to the offense and extremely productive. He is quick, seems to have a good feel for the game, and he catches the ball well out of the backfield.

    From a more general perspective, I see ND’s ability to run the ball getting better this year – not worse. They struggled to run at times last year. Riddick had a productive year but Wood was inconsistent, and at times, non-existent. With McDaniel (referenced above), Carlisle, Mahone, Atkinson, and Bryant …. they have a deep stable of talent in the backfield that should shine this year. In addition, the quarterback play will continue to get better and better – whether it’s Golson or Kiel.

    Go Irish!! Can’t wait until September.

  2. George III is not a running back. He will be best used as a slot receiver with his speed. I see him catching the short passes and outrunning the defense.He does not have the moves to be in the backfield.

  3. They need to let Cam get in more imho…He was highly decorated coming out of Texas and was the Texas 5A player of the year. He does not have the straight ahead speed that GA3 has but he has better moves in space and plays fast. He also has better hands imho!!!

  4. From a coaching strategy looks like we are in the same position here as we were with wideouts going into last season a situation that resulted in a rudimentary passing game throwing mostly from the hashmarks to the sidelines.

    This year, if we are to be successful, think our opening gambit is going to be to mostly run north and south (KISS) with the goal of using our passing game to stop teams from using 8 in the box and our lineman, less experienced than last year, to outphysical the D front.

    As the season goes on expect to see somewhat the reverse of what happened last year when it took awhile to figure out what made our running game work was to pound inside the tackles. In this case expect as the season goes along the skills of these various folk will be situationally exploited (like the Atkinson reverse for a TD in the BYU game) and we will be much more able to attack anywhere with the run.

    BTW the analysis pretty much ignored a factor that should have a lot of impact on playing time. We should be opting for a much more sophisticated passing game (but still avoiding turnovers hopefully). This means RBs are going to have to be effective pass protectors and outlet receivers. At this point haven’t a clue where any of them stand.

  5. 3 words: Run Cam Run. Give Cam McDaniel a chance at RB and lets see what he can do in MEANINGFUL pt. When GA3 got hurt C. McD’ filled in for him…at kick returner…but didnt get the 3 or so carries he would have got in the games. Its frustrating. I would hate to see him ever so predictably switched to “FB” or something else. I really believe in this guy. Yeah yeah he only saw garbage time, i know but lets give him a chance to see what he can do. It took alot for Peyton Hillis to finally see the field and he showed what he could do when given a chance regardless of wether or not you think that year with the Browns was a fluke. He was traded and something like 3 guys had to go down before they were forced to give him the ball and he came through. I see alot of the same toughness Hillis had in that year in Cam McDaniel and i just want to see him get a CHANCE in non garbage time, thats all.

  6. I would have like to seen us acquire atleast one Big-King-Kong bruising hybrid FB to lead our ground game. Durability may indeed be problematic with our current line-up. Sure was impressed with Bama’s iron backs. However, at this late date it may be wishful thinking.

  7. With Golson at quarterback Kelly barely opened his playbook past Chapter One. If he doesn’t move his bookmark, then the players most like Theo will get the carries – i.e. Bryant and Mahone.

    But the playbook should open wider because Cave will be gone and Golson will develop. We might see more option plays, which would put a premium on good hands and speed to the outside – and favor Carlisle and GA3.

    There are too many factors at this point. It is fun to speculate but the 2013 offense will be built around players we have not yet seen, or have not yet seen as primary weapons. I fully expect to be surprised.

  8. I just wasn’t as big of fan of the running game this year as other commentators seem to have been. There were some good games..Miami, Wake Forest…but there were some struggles, too. Even the games where ND had some quality stats seemed to have been based on one or two key breakaways sandwiched around a bunch of 2 yard carries.

    Comparing ND’s running game to Alabama’s is like comparing apples to oranges. ND couldn’t run at will, which is what is needed to finally get that all so important BCS win. The improvement in Golson’s scrambling ability helped, but ND’s run game is going to need either a much more stout OL or a more vertical passing game that pulls DB’s away from the LOS.

    I don’t see Atkinson as an everyday back, either. He seems to really shy away from contact. Unfortunately, I think he’s destined to be a special teams player and a 2nd/3rd string back that breaks a few runs but more often than not gets stuck at the LOS. I see Carlisle getting the majority of carries next year, Bryant with another 6-8 carries per game and Mahone becoming a power back.

    1. West Coast,

      I have a fear about Carlisle and him getting injured. He has been injured both at USC and at ND. I think Atkinson should be that hybrid slot/running back. He was recruited to possibly become a wideout and converted to runnning back. ND needs to keep the two backs they have and we’ll see what Mahone can do. I see the Irish spreading it out and using multiple wide receiver sets and wide out screens.

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