Cam McDaniel the safe choice for Notre Dame's running game

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Production vs. promise is a concept Brian Kelly wrestles with on a regular basis.

The Notre Dame football coach is continually trying to find an effective balance between the two in his run game.

It’s not as simple a situation as it might appear.

On one hand, there’s a proven entity (Cam McDaniel) who takes ball possession seriously and knows how to keep the chains moving.

That’s the production.

On the other hand, there are a couple home-run threats (Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant) who are the explosive loose canons of the Irish backfield.

They are the promise.

Finding a formula that works will be essential to Notre Dame’s success in its final seven games, beginning Saturday against North Carolina.

Add elusive quarterback Everett Golson to the mix and the Irish are averaging 153 rushing yards. Factor in the fact that Notre Dame is working with a re-tooled offensive line, and there appears to be plenty of room for improvement.

Compare that to last season when quarterback Tommy Rees, who wasn’t a threat to run, had McDaniel, Folston and George Atkinson III carrying the bulk of the load while averaging 151 rushing yards. That group had a quality offensive line with a couple future NFL players – left tackle Zack Martin and left guard Chris Watt – as the anchors.

Golson and Bryant really should be worth more than an improvement of two yards a game.

“Statistics are a bit misleading,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “We rank ahead of Florida State (133 yards) in rushing per game, and they are the No. 1 team in the country and won the National Championship last year. We rank ahead of Stanford (142), and you could argue that Stanford is not rushing the ball very well. But that's what they do.

“We want to rush the ball better. But we made a substantial change on the offensive line after three games into the season, and we are still… we're doing OK. We're going to get better. We're committed to being better at running the football. We haven't said, ‘The heck with it, we are just going to pitch it around 70 times.’ There's a commitment to it. We think we can be better at it. We want to be better at running the football. I think that's the most important thing at this point.”

“I feel like we have our identity,” said McDaniel. “Now, it’s just about getting the production that we want out of the run game.

“Everything’s in place. We just have to execute. When we do, we’re going to see big things. We’re all looking forward to that.

“We want to keep winning. If we keep getting better as an offense, rather than going downhill, everything’s going to take care of itself.

“When we go back and look at film, (the problems) are always something real minute; real small. They’re not bbbiiiigggg over-arching problems. It’s staying on a block a little longer here; being more patient on your cut.

“That’s us just getting into our rhythm. Things are different from last year. We’ve got a completely different mindset and offensive look. Everett adds a completely different dynamic to the game.”

Golson is the wild card in this year’s run game. His presence – even the threat he gives to a defense – should be able to enhance the striking power of the Irish ground game.

“We’ve got (Golson) in the backfield,” McDaniel said. “Everett makes us better players. He makes us all better.”

Still, there comes a time when the promise needs to evolve into production. McDaniel, a senior who finally established himself as a dependable asset last season, knows what it takes for the transformation to happen.

“It’s just being consistent and taking advantage of the opportunities you’re given,” McDaniel said. “If you take advantage of the opportunities you’re given, and you prove yourself to be consistent – which is, doing the right thing whenever you’re given the opportunity – you prove yourself as a consistent individual.

“Everybody has promise. You get recruited here because you’re a player that has potential.

“Tarean and Greg are extremely talented. They’re great running backs here already. I didn’t get nearly the opportunities they have at that age. I tell them all the time, ‘You guys are set. You’re going to be awesome players. Keep working hard. Stay humble. The possibilities are limitless.’”

Having had last year to acquaint himself with the grind that is college football, Kelly sees Folston ahead of Bryant at this point in the season.

“A lot of it is learning,” Kelly said. “Greg is a (redshirt) freshman. He truly is getting his first sense of competition, and it's going to come for him, there's no question about that.

“Tarean's further along. You know, he suffered a bit of a setback with a (leg bruise) during the (Stanford) game, which kind of pushed him back a little bit. We're really comfortable with Folston and his development.

“It's Greg's that we need to continue to move forward. What I was kind of referring to is that Greg just needs more time to develop, and he will, and he'll be an outstanding player for us. It's just, everybody wants it to happen right away.

“He just needs a little bit more time and finishing off runs is probably biggest thing right now. He wants everything to be a big run, and he's got to finish off some runs and he's working on that.”

Bryant actually leads the Notre Dame ground assault with 188 yards and a touchdown on 39 carries, but he is far from ready to take some major steps forward.

He has gotten to the point where he might tiptoe into some tackles, rather than attack them full-speed ahead. Against Stanford, he had the opportunity to blow past safety Jordan Richards, but instead tried to juke him.

“I would say that's a pretty good example of what we're referring to is that in certain instances,” Kelly said. “He's a physical kid, run the safety over. Stick your foot in the ground and go north and south.

“In high school, he could make that guy miss. That's one heck of a good safety at Stanford. Lower your pads, run through the tackle, get us four yards. That's all we were looking for on Saturday. We were looking for four yards. Sometimes that's hard, you know, when you're 19 and you're used to getting 40 every time you touch it.

“So that's just development and it will come.”

While the average fan will judge progress with stats like yards gained, Kelly looks beyond the numbers to measure development. Folston gave his coach plenty of opportunities to gauge where he stood against Stanford.

“You know, he made two outstanding blocks I know you want me to talk about his ability to go down the field, and he is a very instinctive runner. He's a smooth cutter. But he does a lot of really good things,” Kelly said. “We ran a boot (pass) into the boundary where we hit a comeback route to Chris Brown. On the back side of that, Tarean Folston made an incredible block off a blitzing safety. He does little things sometimes that don't show up in the stat sheet that as coaches, we really appreciate. He really is an accomplished player, and he's less about potential and he's more in that production, as well.”

That’s a big, and sometimes difficult, step to take.

But it’s necessary for the running game to flourish.

Running back Cam McDaniel warms up prior to the start of the Notre Dame vs. Purdue football game Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014, at Lucas Oil Stadium. (SBT Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES)

Player   Carries  
  Yards    TDs  
Greg Bryant          39 1881
Cam McDaniel481711
Tarean Folston421650
Everett Golson 46 1384