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February 13, 2012

Irish search for slash

To understand how badly Notre Dame needs a functional slot receiver to make Brian Kelly's offense go, consider the fact the Irish head coach basically turned the position into a free-for-all with his staff reshuffle.

After two seasons of trying to develop Theo Riddick into a between-the-numbers threat, Kelly made the slot position an open competition by throwing the entire running back depth chart at it. Tony Alford is charged with picking through that talent to find the right combinations, but there's no doubt Kelly's approach hinges on more contestants meaning better winners.

"There's a duplicate role there in the sense that we want to be able to use our running backs in both the wide receiver position and the running back position," Kelly said. "We think we have a number of guys that are already in the program that can do both."

It looks that way on paper with Amir Carlisle coming into the program with an off chance he'll be eligible to play this season with an NCAA waiver. Alford said he's unsure about the status of that waiver after Carlisle's USC transfer, although the sophomore has shown his athleticism in workouts.

"All I know is the guys that walk in that gate that have a helmet on, that's who we're working with," Alford said. "If and when (Carlisle's) turn arises, then he'll get into the mix. Eventually he's going to play here, just a matter of when."

Even without Carlisle eligible, Notre Dame returns Riddick, Robby Toma, TJ Jones and Matthias Farley as potential slots to go with running backs Cierre Wood, George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel. Incoming freshmen Will Mahone, KeiVarae Russell and Chris Brown all figure to fit into the crossover position.

"Those guys will be very interchangeable," Alford said. "We're going to ask them to know a great volume of things in this offense and to be able to perform at a high level.
The more you can do, the more valuable you are. If you want to play, you'll learn the skill sets and the traits necessary to be out there."

It's difficult to get a read on how much more involved Notre Dame's running backs will be involved in the pass game because Kelly's last five offenses show limited touches.

Wood's 27 catches last season were the most by a Kelly back since Ontario Sneed caught 52 passes for 415 yards and seven touchdowns at Central Michigan in 2006. Darius Walker set the Notre Dame single-season reception mark by a back that same season with 56 catches.

But there's little doubt Kelly wants more from the position after Riddick's up-and-down junior season that included two touchdown grabs at Michigan. Riddick didn't make another scoring catch until the Champs Sports Bowl. He suffered a hamstring injury late last season that opened the door for Toma, whom Kelly said has earned more time.

If the Irish can ignite the slot position, Alford would appear to be the perfect coach to grab the matches. Alford arrived at Notre Dame under Charlie Weis as running backs coach, his more comfortable position. Kelly moved him to receivers in a crash course the past two years.

Now Alford is back in familiar territory even if the coaching assignment is a new one at Notre Dame. Regardless, Alford likes the material he'll have when spring practice opens next month.

"Then that's my job, to make sure that I educate you and teach you the things you need to be successful at these positions," Alford said. "If I don't do that, that falls back on me as the coach. I'm not going to throw guys under the bus … I've got to teach them. I've got to get them prepared to play.

"I've got to do a better job, 8-5 is not good enough by anybody's standards."


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