Notre Dame Football: 3 Running Backs Still a Juggling Act

Keith ArnoldNotre Dame Lead WriterApril 16, 2014

Notre Dame running back Greg Bryant heads up field during the Blue Gold game an  NCAA football game marking the end of spring practice at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday April 12, 2014 in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
Joe Raymond

Shrinking the depth chart at running back was one of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly's first orders of business this spring. Amir Carlisle, who opened last season as the team's starting tailback, was shipped out to slot receiver. Will Mahone joined him.

Add in the mutual decision for George Atkinson to head to the NFL, and Tony Alford's meeting room just got a little bit roomier.

But juggling snaps for three capable running backs is no easy task. And while Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock have four months to figure it out, finding touches for Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel will be the key to the team's success. 

Darron Cummings

After riding a strong running game in 2012, the Irish took a step backwards in 2013. After achieving perfect balance in 2012, Notre Dame averaged just 150 yards a game on the ground, down 50 yards from its regular-season total. A mobile quarterback will certainly help rectify that deficiency. But utilizing the talent in the backfield, while also returning to Kelly's spread roots, will be the challenge. 

A quick look back at the past 20 years of Notre Dame football gives you an idea of how rarely three backs have demanded touches. 

In 2010, an injury to Armando Allen opened the door for Robert Hughes, who provided depth down the stretch. Charlie Weis juggled a similar trio in 2008 (James Aldridge joined Allen and Hughes), but Notre Dame averaged just 3.3 yards a carry that season, one of the nation's worst running games. 

Notre Dame's unlikely Fiesta Bowl run after the 2000 season was fueled by Julius Jones, Tony Fisher and Terrance Howard. And Lou Holtz's best offenses were powered by strong running backs, the product of an option system where passing came second. 

Nobody is going to confuse Brian Kelly's offense with Dr. Lou's. And with the passing game ready to take flight with a talented receiving corps, making sure the ground game doesn't get lost in the shuffle will be a vital part of providing balance.

One look at the Blue-Gold game makes it hard to believe that this coaching staff could forget about Tarean Folston or Greg Bryant. But in critical losses to Michigan and Pittsburgh last year, the running game came up empty, drastically turning the fortunes of a four-loss season. 

While Kelly will return to calling plays, Denbrock's leadership role in the offense will likely help balance things out. While he's coached receivers and coordinated the passing game, Denbrock's roots are along the offensive line, a good sign that a coach understands the benefits of a powerful running attack. 

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 19:  Cam McDaniel #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish breaks a tackle by Su'a Cravens #21 of the University of Southern California Trojans at Notre Dame Stadium on October 19, 2013 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Dani
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

How best to power that attack? Well, it might mean reshuffling a depth chart to make room for a youth movement. 

At this point we know what to expect from senior Cam McDaniel. The Irish's most consistent back last season, McDaniel led the team in touches even though he averaged significantly less per carry than Atkinson or Folston. Kelly has shown how much he values consistency, choosing Theo Riddick over Cierre Wood in 2012 even with a similar statistical imbalance. But with Folston and Bryant no longer freshmen learning on the fly, it could be a matter of talent. 

While Bryant's long run was the highlight of the Blue-Gold game, Folston's performance solidified the fact that he's currently the team's best and most versatile back. His five first-half catches provided the position with much-needed production in the passing game. His vision and running ability looked as good as ever, even with limited touches. 

If Folston showed the savvy of a veteran, Bryant's power and rugged nature clearly have a home in this offense as well. Desperately in need of a between-the-tackles banger, Bryant's no bigger than Folston or McDaniel, but runs with a violence that's been lacking in the Kelly era.

If Notre Dame is asked to win games in a grind-it-out fashion, Bryant could play the role Riddick did down the stretch in 2012, gaining the tough yards against BYU and USC to cement an undefeated regular season. 

Notre Dame has yet to have a true "lead back" under Kelly. But the head coach has shown the ability to properly utilize two running backs, mixing and matching play calls to optimize the running game. With Bryant and Folston, he has two backs capable of executing the entire playbook, all while possessing big play ability. 

Counting out McDaniel would be foolish. But the veteran leader doesn't possess the explosive skill set his younger teammates do. But doing the little things is what's gotten McDaniel this far, and providing protection on third down or adding value in the passing game will make him valuable in 2014. 

The stars are aligning for the Irish offense. But finding the best way to utilize a talented running back position will be critical.