Nearly 20 years ago, Amir Carlisle’s father began training his oldest son, teaching three-year-old Amir agility drills.
Nearly 10 years ago, the elder Carlisle introduced his 12-year-old son to a few professional athletes he trained such as NFL Pro-Bowl running backs Frank Gore and Brian Westbrook.
This Saturday, Amir Carlisle will do his best to run right over his father’s most-recent trainees -- the Purdue defense.
After stints with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, Duane Carlisle now works with the Boilermakers as Director of Sports Performance at Purdue. In many respects, his move from California to Indiana two years ago paved the way for Amir to do so as well, transferring from USC to Notre Dame in 2012.
“Notre Dame was a place that was high on my list coming out of high school, just the distance was a factor that had me shy away from it,” Carlisle said. “But with (my family) coming out here and when the opportunity was presented for me to transfer here, it just made the decision very easy, actually.”
The literal closeness parallels a figurative closeness between father and son, even if they will compete against one another this weekend. Listening to Carlisle, the family encounter will be most awkward for his two younger brothers and his mother. Neither father nor son has altered his usual routine during this week’s preparations.
“We talked (Tuesday). Nothing has really changed,” Carlisle said. “We talked about it at the end of the week and he said we leave the business on the field. He’s still my father. We still have our father-son relationship.
“I’ll get a text message after practice from my dad every day, just asking how things went.”
Duane Carlisle has been invested in his son’s football career from its first days. His 2005 arrival in San Francisco coincided with the drafting of Miami star Frank Gore. Spending the better part of a decade watching his father work with a one-time NFL rushing leader, Amir eventually found himself talking to Gore one-on-one.
Though their body types differ--Gore outweighs Carlisle by nearly 30 pounds, despite standing an inch shorter--Carlisle grilled Gore on the intricacies of the running back position. The two remain in touch, with Carlisle hoping to see his mentor when Notre Dame visits Stanford in November.
“He always taught me to have low pad level in the hole, and if a defender shows himself in the hole, pick a side of him and attack that side of him,” Carlisle said. “That was a teaching that I’ve really embraced and taken with me throughout my football career.”
That physical nature of running has certainly drawn attention this season as the junior running back has totaled 133 yards on 19 carries. Many may have expected the slightest of Notre Dame’s running backs to shy from contact, especially considering his recent injury history. On Saturdays, however, Carlisle’s mentality has been quite the opposite, at one point running through an unaccounted for Michigan linebacker and drawing praise from Irish coach Brian Kelly.
“He ran over a linebacker who was unblocked one time,” Kelly said. “His running after contact was probably the thing that I liked the most.”
Kelly’s next words echoed a common theme this week.
“We still have some work to do in the passing game.”
Carlisle admits his receiving skills are not up to his own standards, but he also feels he is rapidly improving in that area. He has made four receptions this year for 14 yards. Considering he lost last season to a broken ankle and this past spring to a broken collarbone, perhaps the rust is only just now wearing off.
Against Michigan, Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees targeted Carlisle five times, though one pass was intentionally thrown at Carlisle’s feet and another was overthrown. Of the remaining three, Carlisle caught two and deflected the third--off a Michigan defender’s knee and into another Wolverine’s hands. Carlisle started about half his snaps in the backfield, and lined up in the Z position as a receiver the other half. Hauling in passes is a distinct part of his weekly tasks.
“It’s been a point of emphasis. (Offensive coordinator Chuck) Martin talked to me about starting to improve my routes and getting more comfortable out there,” Carlisle said. “I’m starting to get more comfortable, really learning how to attack leverage and the actual dynamics of the route.
“It’s a role hopefully that I can embrace going forward.”
If he embraces that role this weekend, at least one face on the other sideline will have to hide a glimmer of a smile. The younger Carlisle knows his father will be watching closely, just as he has from the first day Amir played football.
“My dad was the first person to ask if I wanted to try out for football when I was 10 years old. Ever since then he’s been the one training me and taking me to camps and bringing me around people who are experts in the field, and really developing me as a player. I really thank my dad for all that he has done.”