Backfield in Motion
Notre Dame's six-man backfield has played out as projected, with it's three juniors, Amir Carlisle, George Atkinson, and Cam McDaniel, doing work on Saturday's and the trio of rookies, Will Mahone and true freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston receiving plenty of play in the press and on Irish message boards.
Carlisle remains the most intriguing long-term prospect. He's shown speed to the edge (45-yard burst on the season's opening play), initial quickness and willingness to hit the hole (back-to-back second half bursts of 7 and 13 yards from the Pistol at Michigan), and as important, outstanding pass protection, the most noticeable a man-up shot to stymie an edge blitz on Tommy Rees' 82-yard touchdown pass to DaVaris Daniels last week.
Carlisle though has been solid not impeccable as a pass receiver, and aside from his opening sprint vs. Temple, has not displayed the open-field magic many projected. His fumble late Saturday night in West Lafayette was a cardinal sin; the Irish defense bailed him out thereafter.
McDaniel is the undisputed reigning "People's Choice." (That'll change if he has a rough outing Saturday.) He runs hard, he doesn't go down at first contact, he falls forward thanks to a natural lean, low pad level, and impressive balance, and he's 1B in terms of backfield blitz protection to Carlisle (both are stout).
McDaniel is the least likely to break off a 40-yard gain -- or even a 20-yard burst. But he's the most likely to turn three yards into five, five yards into seven, and as important, no yards into something positive.
I read recently that Atkinson is "an enigma." I disagree. I think its clear he's a 6'2" 220-pound athlete with rare straight line speed. But he's by no measure a natural, fluid running back. At 7-to-12 carries per game pending the opponent, he can be a game-changing option provided the first two crucial blocks allow him to pivot north-south and hit space entering full speed.
An overlooked bonus of Atkinson's game is the welcomed return of his impact on kick returns. After looking hesitant in the role last season -- that on the heels of a huge true freshman effort in 2011 -- Atkinson has ripped off returns of 26, 50, 24, 47, and 34 yards over the last two games. Its also worth noting that for all the hand-wringing over his penchant to go down at contact, Atkinson has averred 6.6 yards per carry over the last two highly competitive games.
Of note, Atkinson appeared to miss an obvious pass protection on the edge Saturday in West Lafayette and Rees, though he aligned his junior runner properly, was forced to throw the ball away.
Fire Up the Freshmen?
The team's depth at the position is both impressive and disconcerting. The Irish can likely withstand two, if not three injuries to their runners over the next three weeks, but on the flip side, the junior trio isn't sharing the load because each is too good to keep off the field.
Fans assume the freshmen pair is just that, but if either was clearly the best 'back in the team's last 10 to 20 practices, he'd play. At some point, Bryant or Folston will have to earn running backs coach Tony Alford's trust to bypass a junior. That includes pass protection, running as coached, pass catching acumen under duress, ball security, and knowledge of the offense, especially with Rees constantly checking protections and often the play-call itself.
Said Alford of the freshmen pair in August:
"There's a large volume in this offense and the learning curve is steep. Guys coming out of high school, there's little things they never had to do. Greg Bryant never had to read out what a safety was doing. And had to run a route a certain way and in the run game, 'I want your toes straight down the field and not six inches pointed out diagonally to the left. You're talking about a 4 to 6 inch differential that completely changes your second step which changes the whole complexion of the play. LIttle details like that he's honing in on. He's only been doing it three weeks, but he's going to be a good football player.
"Both of those freshmen, we didn't make mistakes with those guys. They're going to be good players, dynamic players for us. I'm excited about Greg as I was when we recruited him. I'm excited about Tarean. We got the right guys."
Of note, both appeared vs. Purdue, with Bryant earning a carry and Folston appearing on the game's fourth drive.
Redshirt-freshman Will Mahone: Like the true freshman, Mahone's potential impact remains theoretical. He made his collegiate debut last week on the kick coverage unit and was one of two players responsible for a massive gulf that allowed Purdue a 47-yard return that set up a 54-yard touchdown drive.
Mahone will likely cede that spot back to senior linebacker Kendall Moore, suspended last week for rules violations. Look for Mahone to get his first shot as a slot option following the team's Week Six bye, assuming he continues to impress in practice. It's a crowded position with myriad options.
RB Stream of Consciousness for Saturday
It's going to be tough sledding Saturday vs. the Spartans, and on that note, I completely disagree with the notion posed at Tuesday's press conference that the style of the game suits Cam McDaniel. I think McDaniel's at his best running through arm tackles and turning creases into 6-yard gains. There are going to be shoulder pads and helmets, a lot of them, coming with the arms of these tacklers Saturday afternoon. In a battle of physical and undersized (McDaniel) and physical and massive (Spartans front seven), I know who I favor…
- Atkinson's first few carries are crucial -- he needs to hit a shovel toss or jet sweep for 10+ yards early to give McDaniel and Carlisle a chance to operate effectively inside…
- Carlisle will play a key role in pass protection Saturday. Will that limit him as a receiver? Will the Irish debut two runners as part of a package (one slotted) for the first time this fall? If Notre Dame falls behind the chains (unfavorable down-and-distance) will the standard screen make its reappearance as part of the offensive package?
- Play-action on third-and-short should play a key role Saturday afternoon. Of Rees' seven touchdown tosses, three have come after play-action fakes (two vs. Temple; one Michigan).
Take what you can get: In 2012 at Michigan State, Notre Dame ran for 8 yards in the first quarter, 53 in the second, 3 yards in the third, and 70 in the fourth.
In 2011 in South Bend, Notre Dame ran for 76 (minus a sack/fumble of Rees) in the first, 36 yards (minus kneel-downs) in the second, and just six yards in the second half.
At some point Saturday, the Irish will move the ball with the aid of their ground game. They have to capitalize, because it won't be a fluid four quarters vs. the Spartans defensive front.
Top 'Back Through Three: I'd give Carlisle the edge over McDaniel, fumble notwithstanding
Most Fun 'Back to Watch: McDaniel has the slight edge over Carlisle, which surprises me
Player the Staff Must Find a Way to Maximize: Atkinson. He's too fast to not be a weekly threat. The shovel pass last week was a nice addition. In addition to his kickoff returns, Atkinson's gained 14, 11 (pass), 12, 16 (pass), 16, 7, 11, 8, and 11 (pass) yards among his 21 touches this season.
Best In Short Yardage: McDaniel
Most Reliable Overall to Date: McDaniel
Most likely to lead the Irish in rushing yards this year: Carlisle
Projecting the best 'back vs. the Spartans: Carlisle -- 70 combined rushing/receiving yards
Will a fourth runner emerge? Yes, Bryant, but because of injury to one of the juniors