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August 2, 2013

In the running for a role

Notre Dame fans aren't the only ones who don't know exactly how the running back position will shake out in 2013.

Brian Kelly and his offensive staff are just as eager to find out themselves.

Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood combined for 304 of the running backs' 388 carries (78.3 percent) in 2012, including most of the meaningful totes along the way. Riddick and Wood - who combined for 1,709 yards rushing last year - are gone, and the position is wide open with the first crack belonging to the two who have actually carried the football for Notre Dame in game competition.

"We've got two guys who have done it, that we've seen," said Kelly, referring to George Atkinson III's 51 carries and Cam McDaniel's 23 attempts in '12. "The rest becomes, 'Let's go see in practice and see how they compete.'

"We know we've got some talented young men that have great résumés, but we're going to have to see how they play when it comes to college football. It's going to be fun."

Two of those young men are freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, and a third - Amir Carlisle - is a junior with three years of eligibility who hasn't played in game competition since 2011 (with USC). The sixth man in the pack is Will Mahone, who brings four years of playing time into his sophomore season.

But until someone beats him out, Atkinson - who rushed for 361 yards and 7.1 yards per carry in 2012 - will get the first crack. His 55- and 56-yard touchdown runs last season were the second and third longest runs of the season despite having 141 less carries than Riddick and 65 less totes than Wood.

Even if you subtract Atkinson's two long runs, he still averaged 5.1 yards per carry while scoring five rushing touchdowns.

"I was talking to Coach (Chuck) Martin, and we were doing a video clip of some of our big plays last year, and when we put it on, we saw George Atkinson quite a bit," Kelly said.

"So we know we've got a big-play guy in George. He's got things he's got to continue to work on - ball security, low pads - all the things people in this room know about. Cam McDaniel (23 carries, 125 yards, 5.4 ypc.) showed us that he can be a very good back for us as well."

Kelly knows all six can't play -- at least not at running back -- on a regular basis. In fact, anything beyond three running backs is a bit of a stretch while two is the more comfortable fit. The Irish will use the pre-season to come with ways to maximize the varied skills of the talented corps.

"The guys that are capable of helping us win, we will find a way to get them on the field, we'll find a way to get them touches," Kelly said.

That may mean getting the football in Carlisle's or McDaniel's hands as a slot receiver or a kick/punt returner. Both would be viable options with swing passes out of the backfield. Maybe Folston gets a look as a kick returner and/or a third-down back if he doesn't play his way into the top rotation. Maybe Bryant gets some of the short-yardage carries that Atkinson parlayed into three red-zone touchdown runs.

"When you have six, everybody has to accept what that role is," Kelly said. "We don't know what it's going to be yet. It's still yet to be determined. Within our offense, we can play a couple of running backs at one time. Because of the versatility of the slot position, you could see one of the running backs playing in the slot.

"So we have some versatility. If we find that our best playmakers come from that position, at least the structure of the offense allows those guys to get on the field. And then, where can you help us? Are you a red-zone player for us? Are you a short-yardage player for us? Are you a third-down back? Are you going to catch punts or kickoffs?

"So if they're all ready to play and help us, we'll find roles, and then it's up to them to accept the roles that we give them."

Like the general public, Kelly isn't sure exactly how it will shake out. It's up to him and his staff to come up with those answers.

"If you look at it strictly from a realistic standpoint, no, you wouldn't be able to get six guys (in the lineup at running back)," Kelly said. "But can they help us in other areas? That's the challenge and the charge that we have, to get the guys (in) who can help us win games."

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