In a perfect world, the “next man in” for Notre Dame at running back would be Cierre Wood…followed by Cierre Wood…with a change of pace from…Cierre Wood.
Actually, in a perfect world, Jonas Gray would be alongside his running mate in the backfield this weekend against No. 4-ranked Stanford. But the game-changing back who emerged from an early-season mishap in the season-opener won’t be around this weekend to form his tag-team partnership with Wood.
Gray went down with a torn ACL against Boston College, ending his Notre Dame career, which saw him rush for 791 yards, 12 touchdowns and a 6.9-yard average per carry in 2011. Did Notre Dame’s hopes for a victory at Stanford go down with Gray?
“I don’t know how the whole public feels, but I thought Jonas was having a great year, working his butt off, and doing a lot of good things,” said Irish running backs coach Tim Hinton. “It’s tough to lose a guy like that.”
Enter, or rather, re-enter Wood into the starting lineup. Despite leading the Irish in rushing with 1,001 yards, Wood had relinquished the starting job to Gray, who made the best of the opportunity by continuing to produce. It was a shift in roles that required the Notre Dame coaching staff’s finesse.
“Today, you better communicate with the kids, and we sat down with Cierre,” Hinton said. “To make those kind of moves is really tough emotionally, and we were honest. Cierre knows the one thing that’s going to happen in our room is honesty. It’s not always what you like, but you’re going to get honesty. I explained the situation to him and the bottom line is Jonas started playing very well and we just felt that it was time to make a little bit of a change.
“I don’t know that it was ever a demotion as much as we had two 1As. It wasn’t 1A and 1B; it was two 1As. So we felt really good about it. It can be very tricky, and (Wood) managed it tremendously well. You’ve really got to compliment Cierre for how he handled it because some kids aren’t going to do as well as he did. The bottom line is he continued to come out and produce.”
While Irish head coach Brian Kelly and Hinton insist that freshmen George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel have to play a role this weekend against Stanford, chances are Wood is going to get most if not all of the “important” carries. He carried 26 times for 94 yards against Boston College and figures to get a comparable - and perhaps even an expanded - role against Stanford.
“Whatever my team needs me to do, that’s what I’ll do, whether it’s carrying the ball 10 times or 50 times, it doesn’t matter,” Wood said. “If they call my number, I just want to get my job done.”
Kelly never lost faith in Wood’s ability once Gray moved into the starting lineup.
“He was still Cierre Wood,” Kelly said. “We didn’t see a drop-off at all. There was good balance there. Obviously, losing somebody that scored 12 touchdowns in Jonas Gray was a blow to us. But we still have a 1,000-yard rusher in Cierre Wood, and that’s a good thing to have going into your last game.”
Asked if Wood could play Gray’s role of power back in addition to his scatback form, Kelly said: “He’s got to do it all. He’s not Jonas Gray. He’s a different runner. But we had to use him late in the game against Boston College in that kind of role, and he stuck his nose in there and played physical. So yeah, he’s got a more expanded role, no question, with Jonas being down.”
If Atkinson and McDaniel don’t get an extended opportunity against Stanford, it could be former running back Theo Riddick, the converted slot receiver who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury.
“We’re continuing to get him along physically with that hamstring,” Hinton said. “I never coached him at running back here, but I understand he was a very good running back with a lot of natural talent. If we need that work, we have to find ways to win this game and the best man has to go play.”
Hinton believes that the best man, or men, at least when Wood isn’t running the football, are the two freshmen who have trained at the position all season.
“The bottom line is at this point in the year, Cam and George have to produce,” Hinton said. “It’s their time. The negative is they haven’t had the practice reps because (we) were trying to get the two top dogs running. But now it’s their time. Now we’re expanding those reps and the knowledge has to be there.
“They’ve got to spend some film time with ol’ Coach Hinton, and every second of those 20 hours they’ve got to get it because the bottom line is they’ve got to be ready to do it. We’re playing a very good football team at Stanford and it’s next man in. We’re not going to take a step backwards. We’re going to maintain that level.”
Wood has no doubt in his mind that he can maintain the high level of play by the Irish running backs, sans Gray.
“It’s very difficult seeing my bro go down,” Wood said. “It’s something that bothered me when it happened, and it’s been bothering me ever since it happened.
“At the same time, I have to keep going, keep moving, because that’s what he would be telling me. ‘Listen, you have to take over now. Just go out there and do what you’ve got to do.’ I just want to keep coming out here and ball the way I usually do.”