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December 27, 2013

Tailbacks can make case for 14

NEW YORK - Brian Kelly didn't reveal much during his final press conference before the Pinstripe Bowl.

What the Irish head coach did was reaffirm one of the most intriguing questions facing his program next season and reinforce the depth Notre Dame must sort once it leaves Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Asked what role Cam McDaniel has earned while leading Notre Dame with 135 carries for 625 yards and three touchdowns, Kelly skipped right over the junior for freshman Tarean Folston.

"We started with a rotation there and I think we've kind of settled on Folston as somebody that would start the game," Kelly said.

The freshman has posted double-digit carries in four of Notre Dame's last five games. Doing that again Saturday against Rutgers would lay down a marker moving toward next season when Notre Dame's entire depth chart returns, including five-star freshman Greg Bryant.

The Irish have started four different backs this season and haven't opened with the same back in consecutive games once. Bryant could give Notre Dame five potential starters for one position, having seemingly settled at Notre Dame, at least from a distance. He's been talked up by Kelly and took to social media this week to celebrate his academic good standing and predict next season "will be a big year for (the) Irish I promise."

With Bryant, Folston, McDaniel, George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle all on the roster entering the off-season, plus a running threat at quarterback in Everett Golson, Notre Dame will have mix-and-match capabilities in the ground game like at no point during the Kelly era.

"I thought that our running game was one that certainly needed to match with who the running back situation ended up being," Kelly said. "We were trying to find out who that back was, whether it was Folston or Atkinson."

Kelly cast McDaniel as Notre Dame's best north-south option, a role he played often this season as the primary back in the Pistol. Against BYU in the home finale, Notre Dame ran two traditional Pistol plays in the first half, both going to the junior from Texas.

"I feel like I did what I could to take advantage of my opportunities, trying to just be the best player that I possibly could for this football team," McDaniel said. "Right now I'm not even focused on 2014, I just want to finish out this season."

Whichever back takes the lead on Saturday will do it behind a makeshift offensive line that's down three starters. When Notre Dame presumably opens with guard Conor Hanratty, guard Steve Elmer and center Matt Hegarty up front, it will mark the position's sixth line combination in the season's final seven games.

Notre Dame used just one line combination during its BCS National Championship Game run.

"That has kind of made it an uneasy situation relative to the continuity, but we have to be able to run the football to be an effective offense," Kelly said. "I think the running back situation has provided us a little bit more clarity. Going into this game, we've had plenty of work with the unit."


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