LOS ANGELES - Cierre Wood bolted out of the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel for perhaps the final time last weekend. During Senior Day introductions he sprinted toward midfield and into the arms of a tackle that almost moved him to tears.
Waiting near the 50-yard line was Wood’s daughter, 14-month old Braelyn, there to embrace her father before his best game of the season, an 11-carry, 150-yard performance against Wake Forest. The afternoon was evidence of Wood grasping Brian Kelly’s offense and why the California native may soon leave it.
Braelyn lives in Las Vegas, Nev., with both her mother Daija, Wood’s girlfriend dating back to Santa Clara High School, about 60 miles west of the Los Angeles Coliseum, and the running back’s own mother, Valerie. All three plan to be here on Saturday night when No. 1 Notre Dame faces USC.
Wood talks with Braelyn almost daily via Skype, but he’s seen her in person less than a half-dozen times. Born Sept. 29, 2011, Braelyn first met her father during last season’s USC weekend.
“At this point he really wants to be with his daughter as much as possible,” Valerie said. “He said, ‘I think it might be time for me to move on.’ I told him whatever you decide, I’m behind you. If you decide to stay, I’m still taking care of Braelyn.
“He’s probably ready to take it to the next level.”
Notre Dame has not made Wood available for interviews this month.
The running back is on track to graduate this year with a major in Film, Television and Theater. He has the potential fifth-year option after red-shirting as a freshman.
If life is pointing Wood toward turning pro, it’s unclear which direction his game will take him. An NFL scout told Irish Illustrated that Wood projects as a mid-round pick should he declare for the draft.
After becoming Notre Dame’s first 1,000-yard back in five years last season, Wood was suspended for the season’s first two games for a violation of team rules. Valerie said the offense occurred during the spring semester. Punishment was handed down in August.
“Whatever the issue is, you’ve got to straighten up and fly right,” Valerie told Wood in August. “You have a baby. You don’t have the luxury of not doing the right thing. You have to do the right thing always. It’s no longer just you.”
The path back to the lineup hasn’t been straight for Wood, even as he’s produced at an elite rate. No back in Notre Dame history with as many carries as Wood’s 438 can top his 5.5-yard average rush. This season Wood trails roommate Theo Riddick by 14 rushing yards (734 to 720) but has carried 58 fewer times.
George Atkinson III is Notre Dame’s fastest back, but Wood’s 68-yard touchdown run against Wake Forest off an option pitch from Everett Golson and his 60-yard touchdown run at Oklahoma rank as the longest Irish plays of the season. Wood and Atkinson have both averaged 7.1 yards per carry this season.
Getting straight-ahead production from Wood has been a challenge for Kelly and running backs coach Tony Alford, one that’s included tough love. They’ve tried to rewire a back whose high school career was built on cutback runs, juking defenders and improvisational plays.
Halfway through his freshman season Wood admitted to his mother that he didn’t know much about football. Valerie told him he’d better start learning. It’s been a four-year education since.
“We ran the option play on Saturday and he was looking to cut off of somebody,” Kelly said. “He was resisting the temptation. When he runs north and south, we all know what he's capable of.”
Wood counts Riddick among his best friends. The roommates at apartment No. 626 just south of Notre Dame’s main gates have been rivals for carries too. Wood’s had just three games this season when he’s carried more than Riddick, who’s developed into Kelly’s power back willing to hit runs between the tackles.
Wood posted at least 18 carries in a game seven times last season. He’s hit that mark just twice this fall.
“Cierre’s a shifty guy but he’s one of the fastest guys on the team,” said center Braxston Cave. “When he puts his foot in the ground and goes north and south, he’s a hard guy to catch. I’m not really sure (what’s changed). He might have had the experience of seeing it where he was gaining all the yards.
“I’m sure he had a come to Jesus moment.”
Wood may have a few more whether his Notre Dame career is down to its final two games or stretches through next season. He’s already had enough with Kelly to change him as a football player. And he’s had enough since Braelyn was born to change him as a person.
When Valerie, Braelyn and Daija showed up for the Senior Day weekend, Wood made a point to go to the store for toddler supplies. When it was time to get Braelyn ready to meet her dad at midfield, Wood picked the outfit.
“At first he’d have two different outfits, the shirt from one outfit and the bottoms from another, and that just isn’t working,” Valerie said. “Now he’s getting it.”