Notre Dame hoping for big things out of the backfield

Notre Dame hoping for big things out of the backfield
August 22, 2012, 10:00 pm
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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."