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September 4, 2013

Backfield 'growing pains'

If Notre Dame’s offense needs to run out the clock at Michigan on Saturday night, Brian Kelly doesn’t know which running back he’d put in the game to do it. What Notre Dame’s head coach knows heading toward Saturday night is he’s got five running back options, all of which remain under consideration for the biggest carries in Ann Arbor.

“Last year we had two seniors, two experienced players,” Kelly said. “None of these guys have a lot of experience. So it's going to take us some time to kind of work through it. We've got some growing pains a little bit at the position, but they're all gifted players, but I think it's going to take us a little time as we grow.

“We're willing to play them all and we're willing to take all of them and their strengths and try to make it work at that position.”

Gone are Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, both making NFL rosters last weekend. Here are George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel, Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston.

Against Temple they combined for 34 carries that covered 193 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and one touchdown. Based on last year’s numbers, that represented an average performance by Notre Dame’s ground game, but it came against a defense that ranked 100th against the run, giving up 200 yards per game.

Atkinson, Carlisle and McDaniel got the work with the game in doubt, Bryant and Folston not factoring until the Irish had established their final working margin on the scoreboard. Still, Kelly didn’t want to talk about the gap between his junior running backs and his freshmen, or even what fills it.

“It's too early to tell,” Kelly said. “I think they all have things that they need to work on. I don't think we left the game going, ‘You know, we know everything about all these guys.’ I think it's going to take some time for all of them to continue to work and continue to progress.”

Notre Dame may not be able to afford patience with its running backs, but it’s worth remembering that last season’s Riddick-Wood combination took years before developing into the tandem that powered a BCS National Championship Game ground game.

Riddick carried just 29 times as a freshman, then moved to receiver for two years, before returning to the backfield. Wood red-shirted and actually started more games as a sophomore than he did as a senior. Throw in Jonas Gray, who didn’t score a touchdown until his senior season, and running back hasn’t been a quick strike position the past few seasons.

Even Armando Allen (one 100-yard game his first two seasons) and Robert Hughes (two 100-yard games his first two-and-a-half seasons). took time to develop at a position viewed as an instant impact spot.

So despite the high stakes nature of Saturday night, Kelly will use the Michigan game the same way he used the Temple game, as an open competition at running back among five candidates.

“Well, obviously we played five because we're still trying to find out who that guy is,” Kelly said. “We're not at that point where later in the year last year we knew when we were going to close out the game, Theo Riddick was in the ballgame, and we're not there yet. We're still searching for that. Everybody is going to have an opportunity to show that that's their job.”

“All of them are very versatile. They all can do the things that we're asking them to do. We're still searching for that guy to close out ballgames.”

Closing out Michigan might close out the running back competition too, or at least focus it.

“They all have confidence that they can do the jobs that we're asking them to do, including Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston,” Kelly said. “I thought they all went in there and showed that they can help us, but we're not going to answer the questions about who's one, who's two, who's three, four, five. It's going to take us a few weeks before we get to that.”


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