NOTRE DAME — Four weeks into the season, Notre Dame doesn’t have an established, every-down running back.
In fact, the Irish may not have one all year — or ever again.
Head coach Brian Kelly thinks the days of a single, staple figure in the offensive backfield are gone, referencing two-back systems that were successful at Alabama, Georgia and other SEC schools last year.
“I think across the country, that singular back, that one guy, has not been able to fit all the things that you want to do offensively,” Kelly said. “I think the position has now required a guy that is multidimensional and it’s better to find that maybe in two or three different backs.”
Two or three? Try five.
It’s been a five-man juggling act for Notre Dame in its first three games, starring George Atkinson, Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel, with freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston in supporting roles.
Speed and experience gave Atkinson the preseason edge, but Carlisle and McDaniel have proved to be the workhorses up the middle.
Carlisle’s 45-yard dash against Temple and hard running against a staunch Michigan front seven made him a clear favorite for the rest of the season. After Saturday, several supporters jumped on the McDaniel bandwagon after the junior’s gutsy, gritty performance against Purdue. Carlisle, meanwhile, finished with 1.5 yards per carry on 11 runs.
The truth is, Kelly won’t likely single out just Atkinson or Carlisle or McDaniel. It’ll be a mix of all three, with a dash of both freshmen.
“We’ll continue to see it weektoweek,” Kelly said. “Next week, maybe we’ll talk about somebody else. We just think we have got a lot of guys that can contribute, and they are all going to have roles. I don’t know that we are going to have one guy that we put up there and say, he’s the guy. You know, I think they are all going to contribute in some fashion.”
With Michigan State — Notre Dame’s third consecutive Big Ten opponent — up next, Kelly can see all five backs playing a role in what he calls another physical matchup against the 3-0 Spartans.
Michigan State brings the top-ranked defense in the country to Notre Dame (2-1) on Saturday, Sept. 21. The Spartans allowed an average of 50.3 rushing yards (No. 4 in the country), 126.7 passing yards (No. 5) and 177 total offensive yards (No. 1) in wins over Central Michigan, South Florida and Youngstown State.
Though Notre Dame has faced an arguably more talented opening slate (Temple, Michigan and Purdue), Kelly says the Irish knows what to expect from a Mark Dantonio-coached team.
“Our kids have played in the game and a lot of them have played in it,” Kelly said. “They know the kind of game it is. So it’s not like I have to stand in front of them and get them ready for this fight. They know what kind of fight it’s going to be. This isn’t, you know, ‘Hey, guys, please listen to me this week.’ They know what they are going to get from Michigan State.”