Notre Dame football: Carlisle eager for shot at USC

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Aw, go ahead, play the hunch.

Why not?

Every football coach has a little bit of a gambler in him.

Nature of the job, right?

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has a chance to roll the dice. He can make a move strictly from a gut feeling, not based on statistical evidence or recent performance.

He could start Amir Carlisle at running back against Southern Cal Saturday night.

Will he? Not likely.

If Kelly wanted to go the safe, dependable route, Cam McDaniel would start. Not flashy, but he reads the holes well and he'll get at least three yards a crack.

If the fourth-year Irish coach was looking for home run potential, he'll go with George Atkinson III. Somehow, though, GAIII has to figure out how to quit dancing east and west in the backfield to avoid negative-yardage plays.

If Kelly wants to get a glimpse of what the future might be, promising freshman Tarean Folston could get the nod.

In other words, none of those three is a lock as a dependable producer. That's why the Irish are averaging a paltry 136 rushing yards a game.

Then there's Carlisle, who started his collegiate career with the Trojans two years ago.

Since a critical fourth-quarter fumble against Purdue, Carlisle did a free fall from the running back rotation. In the three games after Purdue, he has a combined eight carries for 30 yards.

He was supposed to be the next Theo Riddick, a hybrid who can run and catch passes as a slot receiver. Carlisle hasn't caught a pass since the fumble, and has seven receptions for 30 yards all season.

Hardly numbers that warrant a closer look.

In the college football meat market, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Carlisle is a petite cut. With 178 yards on 38 carries this season, he has proven his durability. Forgotten are foot and collarbone issues that kept him off the field last season, his first at Notre Dame.

Carlisle knows what this game is about. He was on the visiting sidelines two years ago when the Trojans left town with a 31-17 victory.

When his father, who was a strength coach with the San Francisco 49ers, got a similar position at Purdue, Amir followed his family to Indiana, though a bit north and east of Lafayette.

Here's the hunch: Who wouldn't have that extra little "oomph" playing against his old team? If Carlisle is ever going to have that breakout game — and put Notre Dame's only fumble of the season completely behind him — this would seem to be the game in which it would happen.

C'mon coach, give him a shot.

"I like hunches, sometimes, in a sense and feel," said Kelly. "When you get a sense of a game, you go with it. I will say this about Amir, the game has dictated his play and how the game has unfolded. He's been ready every week.

"I mean, if we look back early in the season, he was kind of... He started off really well, and then we just had some other guys that have played well.

"It's been more about multiple players playing well at that position, more than his play has not elevated itself. We really just have a situation where we're just trying to get all those guys playing. But having said that, he was at USC. You can see he's pretty focused this week.

"My guess is he's going to be excited about the opportunity to play against USC. So we'll be keenly aware of his want to play very well against USC."

Digest that response down to: Yeah, we'll see.

Nobody will come out and say the fumble was his ticket to the doghouse, but the numbers insinuate that.

The other day, Carlisle was asked what the coaches have told him as the reasons behind his diminished role.

"Uhhh, I'm not sure," was his response.

At least publicly, though, Carlisle will not allow himself to get down about his plight.

"I play to glorify God," he said. "Me, as a competitor, I want to play. I do. It starts on the practice field, getting better each and every day. I'm going to continue to do what I do, in terms of giving 110 percent on every play. When my number is called, I'll do what I can to make a play for my team."

Quarterback Tommy Rees, who had time to decorate the doghouse last season, has a keen insight into Carlisle's situation. Does he have any advice?

"(I'd tell him) how important he is to the team and to keep focused," said Rees. "He's going to get his opportunities. Make the most of them.

"Amir has never gotten down through all this. He's had a great attitude. He continues to work hard and strive to be the best player he can be. We're not too worried about the level of confidence he's kept throughout."

"It goes with the flow of the game," Carlisle said. "I'm happy for George or Cam, or whoever's out there. Every time I'm stepping onto the field, I'm trying to stay out there. I'm trying to make a play. I'm a team guy."

With that attitude, and the lessons he learned from what could have been a devastating fumble, Carlisle seems poised for a recovery.

"(The Purdue) game is in the past to me," Carlisle said. "The mistakes I made in that game I learned from on film. When opportunities present themselves going forward, we still have half the season to go, I'm going to capitalize on those opportunities. I'm just looking forward, trying to be the best player I can be.

"(The problem with the fumble was) not being prepared for all hits. I had two hands on the ball, put one hand on the ball at the last second, the safety came and got his helmet on the ball. (The solution is) keeping five points of pressure on the ball; keeping two hands on the ball when you're in traffic. It's the simple things as the running back."

Basic fundamentals. Probably did it a thousand times before the fumble and a thousand times since. Yet that one mistake has had a profound impact on Carlisle's season so far.

Time to forgive and forget? Time for the coaches to have a short memory?

"It is a big game for me," Carlisle said.

Special athletes can rise to such a significant challenge.

Time to see what makes Carlisle tick.

Notre Dame running back Amir Carlisle (3) plays against his former team when the Irish meet USC Saturday night. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER