Two games into last season, it appeared Amir Carlisle had emerged as the leader among the running backs. Against both Temple and Michigan, the junior led Notre Dame in rushing yards, gaining 68 on seven carries against the Owls and 64 on 12 carries in Ann Arbor.
But then Carlisle’s momentum came to an abrupt stop against Purdue thanks to one fourth-quarter carry as Carlisle fumbled away an Irish possession that could have sealed the game. The USC-transfer’s opportunities dwindled from there until they were nearly non-existent.
Carlisle carried just 17 times for 63 yards in the season’s final 10 games.
“It was what it was. I didn’t have the best game (at Purdue),” Carlisle said. “I kept high spirits throughout that, worked hard at practice. For me, I was the same guy throughout, and worked hard each and every day.
“Whenever my number was called, I ran out onto the field.”
Carlisle had played running back since he was 10 years old, but following his tumbling down the depth chart behind Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and George Atkinson, the Irish coaches asked him about a switch to slot receiver, specifically the Z-position.
Carlisle did not hesitate during his February meeting with newly-named offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock.
“I actually was all for it,” Carlisle said. “A new change, new scenery. I’m always willing to help the team out in any way possible. I was all for it.”
Though the change may seem odd considering Carlisle’s difficulties catching the ball last season, no other positions were considered to fit his skill set. He made seven catches for 30 yards in the first three games last season and didn’t catch another ball the rest of the year.
In retrospect, Irish head coach Brian Kelly shoulders some of the onus for that distinct disparity.
“To look back on some of the things, we never gave him a great opportunity in the passing game, per se,” Kelly said. “He had a couple tough go routes out of the backfield. I don’t know that I would say he lost his confidence in that sense.”
Rather than a loss of confidence, Carlisle points to an unfamiliarity with the position after a decade in the backfield.
“I wouldn’t say I lost my confidence, I just had to deal with adversity,” Carlisle said. “It was my first year being out wide, playing in the slot as a wide receiver. There were going to be some growing pains with that.”
Now that he knows he will solely be in the slot, Carlisle has directed all his attention to the intricacies of being a receiver. He no longer worries about reading a hole at the line of scrimmage. Instead, he studies route trees and how different coverages affect them.
His studies have paid off thus far. In Saturday morning’s practice, Carlisle highlighted one of the latter periods by pulling in a quick slant pass from sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire despite heavy traffic across the middle. The 14-yard gain would have doubled his longest reception last season. At this point, Kelly sees Carlisle and junior C.J. Prosise as the front-runners for the slot position.
“The more I’m out there, the more I’m running routes, the more I’m catching passes, the more comfortable I am, especially with the more minute details of the game - releases, knowing how to run a zone versus man route,” Carlisle said. “It’s still new to me, but it’s definitely becoming more comfortable.”