The makeup of Notre Dame's backfield has changed every week so far, and expect that trend to continue throughout the fall.
Here's Notre Dame's carry distribution through three games: Amir Carlisle (30), Cam McDaniel (29), George Atkinson (18), Tarean Folston (5), Greg Bryant (3). There's a clear top three in Carlisle, McDaniels and Atkinson, with coach Brian Kelly hesitant to throw in Folston and Bryant for extended plays given the pass-protection requirements that come with the position.
Kelly pointed out that nearly every top SEC team uses multiple running backs, and it's rare for a college team to have a lone workhorse. Notre Dame hasn't had that in Kelly's three previous years at the helm — first, it was Ricardo Allen and Cierre Wood, then Wood and Jonas Gray, and then Wood and Theo Riddick.
"I think across the country, that singular back, that one guy, has not been able to fit all the things that you want to do offensively," Kelly said. "I think the position has now required a guy that is multi‑dimensional, and it's better to find that maybe in two or three different backs."
So Notre Dame might not have a true feature back, but Carlisle, McDaniel and Atkinson all appear to be settling into certain roles.
Carlisle might be Notre Dame's most consistently explosive playmaker, and while he's had some issues catching the ball out of the backfield this year, he is the most accomplished back in that regard at Kelly and Chuck Martin's disposal.
McDaniel has seen 12 and 16 carries in Notre Dame's two wins and had just one in the team's loss to Michigan. He's a tough, physical runner who's good inside the tackles but lacks explosiveness. He's perfectly suited for churning up yards on late-game drives in which Notre Dame needs to run out the clock, as evidenced by his 10 rushes on a 7:22 drive to end Saturday's win over Purdue.
Atkinson is still listed atop Notre Dame's depth chart, though he's not as close to being a complete back as Carlisle and McDaniel. His role seems analogous to what it was last year: An occasional home run threat. Since Kelly's fond of baseball references, Atkinson's looking like his version of Matt Stairs.
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But Kelly cautioned none of these roles are defined. Carlisle and McDaniel have been the go-to guys so far, but Atkinson's in that mix while Bryant and Folston might find their way into it as well.
"Next week, maybe we'll talk about somebody else," Kelly said. "We just think we have got a lot of guys that can contribute, and they are all going to have roles. I don't know that we are going to have one guy that we put up there and say, he's the guy. I think they are all going to contribute in some fashion."