Rachel Terlep
Rachel Terlep
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Multi-running back system the way of the future at Notre Dame

Posted on Sept. 18, 2013 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on Sept. 18, 2013 at 9:48 a.m.

There's an Amir Carlisle camp.

There's been a Greg Bryant camp as soon as the blue-chip running back committed to Notre Dame.

After last weekend's performance against Purdue, there's a growing, increasingly vocal Cam McDaniel camp.

Tarean Folston and George Atkinson III have their share of supporters, too.

Take your pick in the Notre Dame backfield. Your favorite. Your top dog. Your go-to guy.

And have fun debating all you want, because unless your argument can change Brian Kelly's plans, you're wasting your breath. The way Notre Dame's head coach sees it, there will be no "one guy" this year. Maybe there won't ever be one again. Even five-star talent Bryant committed alongside four-star talent Folston.

George Atkinson III against Stanford in 2012. (Truth photo by Jennifer Shephard)

When asked on Tuesday, Sept. 17, about the state of the running back derby, Kelly referenced the SEC's success with a two- (or three-) back system.

"I think if you look across the country, last year, obviously two backs at Alabama, two backs at Georgia, some of the SEC schools have shown that they are playing multiple backs," he said. "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."

The multi-running back system has ruled the SEC for years, most recently with Alabama's T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy totaling 42 carries, 248 yards and two touchdowns against the Irish in the BCS national championship game. That same year, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall churned out 2,144 rushing yards for Georgia. In 2011, it was LSU's Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue combining for 2,002 yards, good for second in the conference. The list rolls on. In 2009 and 2010, it was Alabama with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. In 2008, Florida ruled with quarterback Tim Tebow, receiver Percy Hardin and tailbacks Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps registering 600 rushing yards a piece.

Former Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said a multi-running back system in the SEC is "a must."

"You probably gotta have three - two for sure - but you need three and sometimes four," Nutt said in 2011. "This is the guy that’s going to get hit … this is the guy that’s gonna take some shots. How durable you are at the position is really the key for the year.”

It's not just the SEC, either. Of college football's top 10 rushing offenses in 2012, five (Army, Georgia Tech, Navy, Nebraska and Ohio State) used true two-running back systems. The No. 2 running back in the other five schools (Air Force, Oregon, New Mexico, Nevada, Tulsa) averaged at least 50 rushing yards per game.

Notre Dame has utilized its own two-back system in recent years. In 2011, it was Cierre Wood and break-out senior Jonas Gray. In 2012, it was Wood and Theo Riddick.

But Notre Dame doesn't have Wood or Riddick, nor their veteran versatility. Atkinson is fast when running outside and lethal off of push passes, but he doesn't have the grittiness or power to run up the middle successfully and he struggles to catch passes. The opposite can be said for McDaniel, who can turn a 1-yard gain into a 3-yard gain through sheer willpower but lacks the size and speed to be a true big play threat. Carlisle lies somewhere in the middle. Though he has a different built that Riddick, Carlisle has the potential to be the versatile threat his predecessor was. Bryant and Folston's true talents remain to be untested. Both freshmen have a handful of carries between the two of them but haven't seen many significant touches.

Greg Bryant at a preseason practice. (Truth photo by Jennifer Shephard)

Kelly is quick to compliment both, saying Bryant is a "physical, hard runner."

"He's just downhill," Kelly said. "There's not a lot of wasted movement. He gets it and goes. When he first got here, there was a lot of dancing, and now it's Point A to Point B. I like the way he hits things, very good acceleration."

Kelly called Folston "very smooth."

"Just looks like everything he does is very smooth," Kelly said of Folston. "Gets out of his breaks very, very well. Puts his foot in the ground and can accelerate. Catches the ball extremely well."

Folston and Bryant may be the way of the future for a Kelly-coach team that has relied on dual running backs recently. It just comes down to what will work for the present.


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