Notre Dame hoping for big things out of the backfield

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Notre Dame hoping for big things out of the backfield

Both Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix have mentioned during fall practice that they don't need to do too much, just get the ball to Notre Dame's playmakers and let them rack up the yards and points.

Last year, that strategy meant feeding Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert as much as possible. This year, Eifert's still around, but there doesn't appear to be one single wide receiver who's in a position to take over for Floyd's production.

Perhaps one will emerge, but as the Irish barrel toward their season opener against Navy Sept. 1, most of the offense's playmaking ability appears to be in the backfield.

Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III comprise a a three-headed monster at the running back position, although that doesn't mean they'll necessarily line up in the backfield on every down.

"We're going to play all of our backs," coach Brian Kelly said last week. "When we talk about all of our backs, they're playing both wide receiver, slot position, we can move them anywhere on the field as well as play the running back position."

Of the three, Wood is probably the most pigeon-holed into being a running back, although that doesn't mean he's not an adept pass-catcher -- he has 47 receptions for 359 yards in the last two seasons. But Atkinson and Riddick, especially, are able to take on more of a "hybrid" role, lining up either as a running back or receiver.

"I've seen great growth in George Atkinson," Kelly said. "We always look to George as somebody that maybe he's just a running back. Well, he's really evolved into somebody that can catch the football for us.

"We know about Theo, obviously with his stint at the wide receiver position, and Cierre has really made great strides over the past 10 days or so. They're all going to play, and it would not be a surprise if a couple of them are on the field at the same time."

Riddick came to Notre Dame as a running back, but was flipped to wide receiver after his freshman year, when Kelly's coaching staff took over in South Bend. He's caught 78 passes in the last two seasons while only rushing 25 times, but those numbers may even out for his senior year.

"It works out very well -- I have to know every position," Riddick said of his hybrid role in the offense. "I have great knowledge of the playbook and Im moving around, so you can never focus on just one position that Im playing."

Atkinson flashed his playmaking ability last year on kick returns, taking two back during his freshman season to tie a Notre Dame record. He'll remain there, but he -- along with Wood and Riddick -- have seen work with the punt return unit in fall camp.

Riddick was slated to be Notre Dame's punt returner last year, but struggled with catching the ball early on. He was eventually replaced by John Goodman for a few weeks until Kelly decided to go with Floyd in that spot.

"I wouldnt say uncomfortable, I was always comfortable," Riddick said of his punt returning woes last year. "Confidence was never a problem. But having the chance to do it again, I guess well see."

Notre Dame is hoping for more out of its punt returners, just like it's hoping for more out of its offense. And with an inexperienced quarterback leading the charge against Navy, the success of the team's running backs will take on added importance.

"Our team is so good around us, the quarterback position, we don't have to win the games, we just have to get the ball to our horses and let the playmakers do their job and just minimize mistakes," Hendrix said earlier in camp. "We moved backwards sometimes last year, and as long as we're always moving forward, never having negatives plays we're going to be a very good football team."

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After loss to Mavs, Wade says Bulls 'keep putting (their) hand on the hot stove every day'

Dwyane Wade sounded every bit like a frustrated 35-year old father when talking about the repeated ills and so-called growing pains of his Bulls, as they surrendered yet another game against a sub-.500 team.

Sometimes it's the New York Knicks whom the Bulls are offering temporary refuge. Or maybe the Minnesota Timberwolves as they are all-too-generous to roll out the welcome mat for returning figures to Chicago.

Tuesday it was the Dallas Mavericks, the second-worst team in the Western Conference, who stormed into the United Center and escaped with a 99-98 win, courtesy of Wesley Matthews' triple with 11.7 seconds left followed by him locking down Jimmy Butler on the ensuing possession.

Wade was forced to take a contested 21-footer that went awry, but the Bulls' ills went far beyond the last two possessions, when the Mavericks exploited their strategy yet again.

"Either you learn the lesson or figure out," Wade said. "Keep putting your hand on the hot stove every day.

"We just gotta figure out not to put our hands on that stove. And understand when we come in the kitchen, that stove is hot, don't touch it. As I continue to say, this is a very young team and they have to play in these games and have to go through these moments. The one thing you want, whether it's this year or next year, is to not make the same mistakes."

The Bulls are apparently insistent on touching the stove and keep burning themselves, the most recent time with the confusion or the bad strategy in defending the Mavericks' final offensive possession.

Deron Williams found himself with Nikola Mirotic defending him off a switch from Jimmy Butler. Not the quickest afoot, Mirotic gave Williams an easy path to the basket and Wade was the backside help, not wanting to leave Matthews on the wing for a triple.

But with the bench commanding Wade to help, Williams easily found Matthews for an open 3 as Wade had no help for his man. With the Bulls up two, one could see how Wade didn't want to leave Matthews.

"I'll have to go back and watch, but it looks like Deron got downcourt, Wade went over to help and we didn’t rotate accordingly," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "We obviously need to do a better job of staying in front of the other end."

Mirotic was supposed to be brought back slowly in his return from strep throat, but he played the entire fourth quarter and 22 minutes overall, having lost eight pounds with his illness that had him miss four games.

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Their issues were game-long and have been seasonlong as the Mavericks were supposed to absorb a shellacking from a Bulls team that felt a 25-point beatdown in Texas last month.

Instead, they would've been happy with settling for an escape when Butler rose up over his college teammate Matthews for a 20-foot wing jumper with 22.8 seconds left.

Butler nearly added a triple-double and clutch moment to his growing resume with 24 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds but was dogged by Matthews all night, the defender who wouldn't give him airspace, went chest-to-chest and even earned a technical foul when he felt Butler exaggerated some contact in the third quarter.

"He took away my space, wouldn't let me get to my spot," Butler said of Matthews. "Good for him. I should've did something different."

Wade missed 13 of his 21 shots, scoring 17 with five rebounds on his 35th birthday

With scoring at a premium, Robin Lopez had a season-high 21 points being guarded by Dirk Nowitzki — and they were necessary considering the Bulls were without Taj Gibson (ankle injury) and Doug McDermott couldn't repeat his 30-point showing from Sunday in Memphis.

Rick Carlisle has long been regarded as one of the top strategic coaches, and though he doesn't have the usual personnel from the Mavericks' salad days, he had enough tricks up his sleeve to throw the Bulls off.

Six Mavericks scored in double figures, led by Harrison Barnes' 20 points and Seth Curry's 18, as Barnes, Matthews and Curry combined for eight triples — spreading the Bulls out and picking them apart defensively.

The Mavericks started Nowitzki at center, going to an almost all-small lineup. And though Lopez scored 14 points in the first half, trying to feed him seemed to take the Bulls out of it in the second half.

The energy was tardy to the party, as they shot just 41 percent in the first half but woke up a little in the third quarter — continuing their all-too familiar trend of half-hearted efforts against lesser teams.

And it looks like the ever-optimistic Wade is dishing out some realism, probably something that comes with the perspective of turning 35.

"You can't keep getting stressed out or frustrated. We've been going through this all year. We'll get back in in the morning.

"Once you realize who you are, you're better off. I sleep better at night. Once we want to be a better team and start winning games, we will. I'm not mad, I'm not frustrated, I'm not stressed. Just taking the hits."