Irish RBs prepared to make or break BCS Championship


Irish RBs prepared to make or break BCS Championship

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Arguably the biggest key to Notre Dame's offensive success Monday in the BCS Championship is to establish the run early, which would help open up the passing game for Everett Golson later on. For all of his strides in the last few months, Notre Dame isn't likely to beat Alabama on the arm of Golson; instead it'll be thanks to the legs of Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III.

Notre Dame's backfield dynamic has changed plenty during the 2012 season, when it began with Riddick and Atkinson plowing through Navy in Dublin. Wood's return after a two-game suspension brought the team's leading rusher from 2011 back into the fold, but he hasn't got the volume of carries he'd like this season. And Atkinson has slowly been phased out of Notre Dame's playbook after a breakout game against Miami.

The Irish will enter the BCS Championship with Riddick as the team's feature back. He's carried the ball at least 15 times in five of Notre Dame's last six games, with the exception being in a 38-0 blowout over Wake Forest.

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"It seemed like he should've never played receiver before with the way he runs the football," Alabama defensive end Damion Square observed. "He looked like he was a born running back with his one-step quickness and the way that he hits the hole with the power that he has."

Riddick is a natural running back, although a stacked depth chart shifted him to wide receiver in 2010 and 2011 before returning to the backfield. But he's eclipsed Wood in the eyes of Notre Dame's coaches, which has left Wood with an average of just 11 carries per game this season.

"It's been difficult, but the thing I tried to do when I start getting carries like that is make plays sooner and faster," Wood said of his decreased role. "Toward midway throughout the season, that's what I started doing. I'll only have seven carries or 100-something yards or something like that. I just try to make big runs as soon as I can. It was just a new challenge for me, I embraced it and welcomed it with open arms."

That strategy led to a haymaker run against Oklahoma, with Wood racing 62 yards up the middle for a first-quarter touchdown that silenced the largest crowd in Oklahoma Memorial Stadium history. It's a play Square said he's watched over and over again in an attempt to diagnose what the Sooners did wrong, and if Alabama is susceptible to the same fate.

"That takes the air out of you, when a guy splits your defense and runs for a touchdown like that coming out of the backfield, no doubt about it," Square said.

While Wood has seen some success with that mindset, Atkinson hasn't. For all his explosiveness and blazing speed, Atkinson's best game since Oct. 6 against Miami was a seven-carry, 34-yard effort in a low-pressure situation against Wake Forest. Perhaps the five-week layoff did him some good, but the sophomore appears to be a work in progress at this point.

"We just know we gotta take advantage of each carry," Atkinson said, "and what we do with those carries is going to affect how many times we're going to get it."

Atkinson's role will likely increase in 2013, with Riddick's tenure ending Monday night and Wood considering the NFL. Wood said he'll make a final decision on whether to stay or go after Monday's National Championship, but reading between the lines, he didn't sound like someone who planned on sticking around for 2013.

"If I feel the time is right or if I feel that's what I want to do, then the decision will be made," Wood added.

Still, Wood's focus is on Alabama, and what he can do to help Notre Dame -- and, also, himself -- on college football's biggest stage. If he and Notre Dame's running backs can make Alabama fear them on Monday, Notre Dame's offense very well could be in good shape.

That's easier said than done, though.

"They don't get moved," Riddick said of Alabama's defensive line. "That's a huge problem if you can't move the front four and create holes.

"You just cannot become one-dimensional against this team."

DeShone Kizer stays the same leader for new group of Notre Dame teammates

DeShone Kizer stays the same leader for new group of Notre Dame teammates

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A number of teammates took the field for the first time with DeShone Kizer during the cacophony of Sunday night’s atmosphere at Darrell K. Royal Stadium in Austin. And much as Kizer did last year, he led the Irish offense with a certain kind of poise and mentality that deftly toes the line between confident and cocky. 

“When we were down by two touchdowns or when it was tied, he had the same demeanor,” sophomore receiver C.J. Sanders said. “That really speaks volumes about him as a man.”

Kizer wowed his teammates a year ago when he subbed in for the injured Malik Zaire and threw a game-winning touchdown to Will Fuller. It wasn’t just for the throw, but it was also for the way in which the quarterback conducted himself in a hostile, pressure-packed environment. 

Last year’s Irish offense, though, was loaded with leaders. Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Chris Brown were pillars on that team, and there were veterans all around like Fuller, C.J. Prosise, Steve Elmer and Amir Carlisle. 

Notre Dame only returned a handful of upperclassmen who played on that 2015 team in Kizer, Torii Hunter Jr., Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson (running back Tarean Folston was injured in Week 1 against Texas, and tight end Durham Smythe missed the remainder of the regular season after an injury in Week 2). 

So that meant there was quite a bit of inexperience permeating Notre Dame’s offense Sunday night. But some of those greenhorns said Kizer’s composure and confidence helped them ease into a roaringly-intense evening. 

“When we were down, he brought us together and said we’re going to drive and score and come back,” sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown said, adding that message from Kizer gave him and the rest of the Irish offense a confidence boost in the second half. 

“What young guys typically don’t understand when they go into that environment is that it’s not too much different from what you’re doing in practice,” Kizer said. “When you step in front of 100,000 people, there’s a lot of noise and that could definitely create some adrenaline. But other than that, we’re playing the same game that we’ve been playing all summer. 

“The plays have been made time and time again all offseason and just understanding that when they’re out there, they’re expected to make those same exact plays and all they have to do is do that and do that well. You don’t have to go out there and be someone else. We have a really good coaching staff who put you in good positions to make big plays and all you have to do is execute what they say.” 

Leadership is one of those nebulous things every football player and coach will tell you is necessary, but it’s a quality that’s impossible to quantify. It’s not an end-all, be-all for an offense or defense — Notre Dame, after all, didn’t score when it got the ball back after Jarron Jones’ miraculous blocked PAT, which probably had more to do with the loss of Hunter Jr. than anything else — but it is something that can be pointed to as an asset in close games. 

And with Kizer quarterbacking the offense, Notre Dame has to feel confident in its ability to hang in close games. It still needs its special teams, defense (which was primarily behind recent losses to Stanford and Texas) and coaching (behind the loss to Clemson) to come through, but the next time Notre Dame finds itself in a high-pressure, hostile situation, it can count on Kizer to keep things calm. 

And that counts for something, whatever the extent of it is. 

“Before the game he kind of talked to us, got in front of us and told us hey, I don’t care how young you are, I know you guys can make plays,” Sanders said. “So just hearing that from him developed a comfort level to know that he can depend on us. Hearing that from him really made a big difference.” 

Loyola excited for upcoming season, trip to Spain

Loyola excited for upcoming season, trip to Spain

Loyola didn't have the season they were hoping for in 2015-16 but they're optimistic that things can turn around for the upcoming season. Even though the Loyola roster is filled with newcomers, the Ramblers are hopeful that a summer trip to Spain can help give them a head start.

As part of the trip, Loyola will get 10 extra practices and four games against Spanish competition that will give the team some much-needed experience before practice officially begins in October.

Head coach Porter Moser is already happy about working with this group, which features some productive returnees and a lot of talented newcomers.

"We play four games over there. They get that feel of being coached in a game at this level with their teammates," Moser said. "So then when we start back up in October they have a sense of some of the things we're trying to teach, some of the things of what to expect. And I think that's such a big element."

On a team full of new players, it will be important for senior guard Milton Doyle to have a bounce-back year for Loyola after a disappointing junior campaign. A former star at Marshall, Doyle saw his shooting percentages dip last season as the Loyola coaching staff challenged him to improve for his final season of college basketball. 

Moser is happy with the strides that Doyle has made this summer as he's added over 10 pounds of muscle to now play at 192 pounds. Also committed on the defensive end of the floor and being a team leader, Doyle is the Ramblers' only senior this season, so he'll be counted on to be a productive presence.

"It's a lot this year just because we had four seniors leave last year and I'm the last senior," Doyle said. "So it's my job to make sure everyone stays on track and everyone is uplifted, even when coaches get on them. That's my job right now."

Junior wing Donte Ingram — a former Simeon product — and junior guard Ben Richardson also return as key contributors from last year's team while Iowa State transfer guard Clayton Custer is expected to come in and be a major factor in the team's backcourt rotation.

As for the newcomers, Moser compared juco transfer forward Aundre Jackson favorably to former Loyola forward Christian Thomas while Vlatko Granic gives the team a stretch option at forward that they didn't have in the past. The team's freshmen are also very talented as guard Matt Chastain has shown solid athleticism and a good basketball IQ through some early practices. 

Another freshman guard, Cameron Satterwhite, is coming off of a torn ACL that cost him his senior season, but the Loyola staff is optimistic about his recovery for this season. Croatian freshman guard Bruno Skokna is also recovering from injury as he has played against professionals in Europe the last few seasons on an amateur contract. He is expected to be cleared soon so that he can return to action this season.

"I love this group because it's a group full of gym rats. This is a really enthusiastic group," Moser said. "They've come together, we've got a lot of newcomers. That's the benefit, that's why we did the Spain trip this summer."

Loyola takes its trip to Spain from Aug. 12-22 as they'll hit cities like Barcelona and Madrid during the trip.