Carlisle may be key to Notre Dame backfield

Carlisle may be key to Notre Dame backfield
July 23, 2013, 2:15 pm
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Notre Dame's backfield saw plenty of turnover following the BCS Championship, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Replacing Theo Riddick (190 carries, 917 yards, 5 TDs; 36 receptions, 370 yards, 2 TDs in 2012) and Cierre Wood (450 carries, 2,447 yards, 16 TDs in three years) appears to be a daunting task, but a wave of blue-chip underclassmen may be up to the task.

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George Atkinson returns with the most experience, while Cam McDaniel saw carries in garbage time and Amir Carlisle had a handful of carries at USC before transferring to Notre Dame. Adding to the mix for 2013 are five-star freshman Greg Bryant, four-star freshman Tarean Folston and 2012 four-star back Will Mahone.

What Notre Dame is losing in experience, it's making up in a wealth of talent.

Atkinson is an explosive playmaker who saw inconsistent carries and production in 2012. He had games like a 10-carry, 123-yard, two-touchdown outburst against Miami, but had four or fewer carries in six games. He was the subject of the defining moment of Notre Dame's Blue-Gold game in April (non-Irish Chocolate division), when linebacker Carlo Calabrese lit him up on a run toward the left side of the offensive line.

Atkinson was running upright, and his high shoulder pad level made him a sitting duck.

"We've just got to get his pads down a little bit," coach Brian Kelly said. "Carlo reminded him he should run a little bit lower at times and I thought that was a great teaching point for him."

Whether Atkinson can be an every-down/go-to running back may not matter, though. Between Bryant, Folston, Mahone and McDaniel, there's enough depth at the position where the need for a true No. 1 back may not exist.

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That leaves Carlisle, given his ability as a pass-catcher, as arguably the most important running back to Notre Dame. Even before projected No. 1 slot receiver Davonte Neal transferred in March, Carlisle was working on his route running with wideout Davaris Daniels. The expectation is that Carlisle will get a look at the role vacated by Riddick, one that sees the running back often be motioned out of the backfield into the slot to create mismatches.

"I pride myself on versatility," Carlisle said in the spring. "I'm not quite sure if the coaches are going to use me like that, but over the offseason I really worked on becoming a better receiver."

But Carlisle hasn't been healthy since coming to South Bend. An ankle injury kept him out in 2012, and only a few days into spring practice, he broke his collarbone, limiting him to non-contact activities in March and April.

Replacing Riddick's production isn't essential to the Irish offense, but with him, Neal and Tyler Eifert no longer in South Bend, Chuck Martin needs as many weapons as he can get. If Carlisle can be one of them, it'd be a boon for Notre Dame's offense -- although, of course, the same can be said for any of the other Irish running backs.

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