Notre Dame football: Expect plenty of handoffs in opener

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Identities are carved early in a football season.

Notre Dame hopes to plant its first step on firm ground Saturday.

Developing a productive run game is high on the priority list for the Irish in the opener against Temple.

The means to that end will likely be different this week compared to how it will be next week at Michigan.

The Owls may not give a hoot that the Notre Dame offensive line will dwarf their defensive front — even with tackles Kamal Johnson (6-foot-4, 310 pounds) and Levi Brown (6-2, 300). But it does set up a situation ripe for Irish success.

Last year, Temple yielded 200 rushing yards a game. Coaches and the system have changed, but the personnel are relatively static.

This could be an opportunity for Notre Dame to put on display all five of its running backs — George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel, Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston — to see who shines under the bright lights.

Intense competition for a month did little to adjust the preseason pecking order. It’s still Atkinson and Carlisle and everyone else.

“(Atkinson) has experience at the position,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of his starter. “He has done it on the field. He’s going to have to continue to do it.”

The 6-1, 220-pound junior was the third option in a ground attack that averaged 189 yards last year. While getting leftover carries from Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, Atkinson gained 361 yards and five touchdowns on 51 attempts.

Atkinson has had a habit of running “tall.” Pads high. Big target. Sprinter’s speed gets neutralized a bit.

Kelly said Atkinson was a big reason for Notre Dame’s dalliance with the pistol formation, the worst-kept secret of camp.

In one breath, Kelly wouldn’t even acknowledge the pistol (lining the quarterback up four yards behind center with the running back directly behind him). In the next breath (while it was on full view for the media to see at practice), he talked about the possibilities.

Atkinson paid attention at the team’s recent sessions on how to deal with the media, so he wasn’t real sure about how to answer questions about the top-secret information.

“By nature, it’s (more straight-ahead running),” Atkinson hesitantly said of the pistol. “We’ll see how it goes.

“I can’t talk about what options I have. You’ll have to talk to Coach about that.”

Then, he went on to say ...

“(In the pistol) you’re running downhill. You’re behind the quarterback. That’s what the pistol is meant to do. We just have to make sure we’re reading the right holes. You’re just doing what the coaches ask.”

Just so he doesn’t shoot himself in the foot with those pistol comments.

Carlisle has followed a long, quite disjointed path to his first appearance on the field in a Notre Dame uniform. The journey started at Southern Cal two years ago. The 5-10, 190-pounder played in eight games for the Trojans, rushing for 118 yards on 19 carries, while catching seven passes for 41 yards and a TD.

After transferring to Notre Dame, he was granted immediate eligibility, but a foot injury kept him out for the season. A shoulder injury interrupted his spring.

Healthy now, Carlisle could provide the same sort of spark that Riddick gave, moving between running back and slot receiver.

“I pride myself as being someone who is trustworthy as a player and someone who is going to give my all each and every play,” Carlisle said. “I like to add a sense of ‘dynamic’ to the offense, with me being able to be versatile in my role.”

“Amir has done some things that we weren’t certain he could do: Run the ball up inside,” said Kelly. “At first glance, you’d think, well, maybe he’s a guy that plays outside more. But he’s run the ball inside. He has shown his ability to do that and has shown great durability.

“He had a couple injuries early on in his career, but made every practice (this preseason) and performed very well.

“He’s got the ability to catch the football. He’s got breakaway speed, and he’s shown the versatility to play inside and out.”

There might be something deep within Carlisle’s personality that gets some pleasure out of that inside game.

“I’ve always liked to run inside, ever since I was younger,” Carlisle said. “I’ve preferred an inside zone. It’s a tight space. It’s not as much freedom, but it’s hard-hitting, hard-nosed, down-your-throat. I’ve always been a fan of that type of football. I like running inside.

“You just have to know how to take a hit. You try not to take too many square-on hits. It’s just running hard.”

Gotta love an attitude like that. Finesse counts for something, but the power game has its place.

“I sit back and count my blessings,” said Carlisle, another guy who didn’t snooze through the lessons on media acumen. “There’s a sense of responsibility for me to go out there and perform for my teammates and this university.

“Competition always breeds success. To have such a great (meeting) room, it makes all (the running backs) better. On the field and off the field, we compete, but we’re there to help the other guy.

“I’m the type of guy, regardless of whether I’m first on the depth chart or last on the depth chart, I will give my all on each and every play. I play for excellence. I play for God’s glory. Every time I step on the field, I want to do everything for excellence. I might make mistakes. If I make a mistake, it’s on to the next play. I try to do that, play to excellence.”

Sounds like a noble endeavor. The real competition is set to begin. After a month of simulation, these numbers will count.

The Irish will know who they are.

Notre Dame fans will get their first look at running back Amir Carlisle, right, a USC transfer, in Saturday's game against Temple.  SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ