NOTRE DAME — While Notre Dame has established a tradition of a multi-running back system during Brian Kelly's tenure, don't expect the Irish backfield to look like it has always looked.
Greg Bryant won't be relegated to the inside running. Tarean Folston won't be confined to outside running. Cam McDaniel won't be limited to photogenic running.
Rather than a five-man stable that clogged Notre Dame's depth chart through much of 2013, the Irish are now stocked with a trio of reliable ball carriers equipped for a variety of jobs.
With George Atkinson III chasing the NFL Draft and Amir Carlisle and Will Mahone shifted to receiver, the running back corps has been whittled down to Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.
If the spring and fall progress the way offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock hopes it does, McDaniel, Folston and Bryant won't be specialty players custom-fit for a specific package. Notre Dame hopes to rely on all three for every job.
"You can kind of put those guys in different situations and not pigeon hole them necessarily into, 'you're an outside runner, you're an inside runner,'" Denbrock said. "Those guys can take all the reps at all the different things and you can let them sort it out themselves, which is always a good thing."
McDaniel returns as Notre Dame's reigning leading rusher (152 carries, 705 yards, 3 TDs in 2013) but expects to share the load with rising sophomores Folston and Bryant.
Folston emerged in the second half of the 2013 campaign, claiming nearly all of Atkinson's carries on his way to 88 caries, 470 yards and three touchdowns. Bryant was hurt for the majority of his freshman season and saw limited playing time.
McDaniel and Folston have taken the lion's share of first-team snaps throughout spring practice, but Bryant is steadily catching up.
"Just an incredibly explosive athlete, very powerful kid," Denbrock said of Bryant. "He’s in there with the (first team) versus the first defense and he hadn’t done a lot of that and he’s a little wide-eyed in learning is he goes as a lot of our young guys are. ... The power he can bring running the football inside the tackles and still having that quickness to get to the perimeter to make things happen is a pretty good thing to have."
If there's an area Notre Dame's running backs have struggled in in recent years, it's the hybrid role of also catching the football. A year after Theo Riddick posted a team all-time high 36 catches for 370 yards, Atkinson grabbed just seven for 51. Carlisle also pulled in seven catches for 30 total yards.
As Notre Dame's offense evolves under Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, expect its running backs to grow along with them — including in the receiving game.
"I love the versatility of those three guys in particular because I don’t think we have to be predictable with who’s in the game and what type of scheme we’re playing," Denbrock said.