Backs competing for carries

COMPILED BY TYLER JAMES
ND Insider

Little separates the three-headed monster of Notre Dame’s rushing attack.

A combination of talent and experience has left the Irish with a logjam at the spot, and each guy believes the football belongs to him.

“I don't believe there's a negative to that in any way, shape or form,” said running backs coach Tony Alford. “You want guys that are confident. You want guys that feel like they're the guy and want to be the guy. If they don't, we've recruited the wrong guy.”

Senior Cam McDaniel returns as the trusted veteran and leading returning rusher. Sophomore Tarean Folston brings back the experience of his first full season and two starts in the final three games of 2013.

Sophomore Greg Bryant carries the hunger to make an impact after a trying season spent largely on the sidelines. Each player wants to succeed in his own way, but not at the expense of the others.

Notably out of the mix is George Atkinson III (555 yards on 93 carries and three TDs), who was suspended by head coach Brian Kelly in what turned out to be Atkinson’s final collegiate game. He then skipped his senior year to enter the NFL Draft, but went undrafted last May.

“They all have a very high competitive nature about them and a competitive level about them,” Alford said of the three holdovers. “They show that every day when they come to practice.

“What I do like about it is they're not at each other's throats. They coach each other up. They champion each other's efforts, which is a positive thing. We need them all.”

Alford can say that both confidently and honestly, something he couldn’t do last year with five or six different scholarship running backs fighting for carries.

Besides Atkinson’s departure, senior Amir Carlisle and junior Will Mahone moved to the receiving corps primarily to work in the slot. The took the burden off Alford to find a way to make everyone happy.

“When you start talking five and six … it's hard to look them in the eye and say, 'Look, there's only one ball to go around here,’” Alford said. “It's a lot easier to manage with three than when you're talking about five or six.”

The carries will likely follow the hot hand. Where McDaniel has largely proven himself, Folston has just started to scratch the surface. Where Folston has begun to deliver on his potential, Bryant will try to follow up a breakthrough spring with more sizzle in August.

“All of them have the skill set that we need to be successful at this university in this offense,” Alford said. “It's just a matter of consistency in your trade."

Such consistency was missing from Notre Dame’s rushing attack last season. The average of 151 yards per game ranked the Irish No. 80 in the FBS (out of 123) for 2013. McDaniel, who netted 705 yards on the season, finished as the only back with an average of more than 50 yards per game.

Once an afterthought, McDaniel emerged mostly because of his dependability. There’s little mystery to what Alford will get out of him on a weekly basis. He’s the savvy veteran that refuses to let the talented younger players totally unseat him.

“Cam's awesome. He's really good just to have in the (meeting) room,” Alford said. “One, he's a good football player. He's tougher than hell. He's gritty. He'll fight you. He's productive. All those different adjectives you can use. But he's been great in the room as far as a leader within the room. We all need that.”

Alford puts McDaniel in a category of his own when it comes to leadership.

“Cam's got a different level of maturity about him that, for me has really been unparalleled in a lot of ways,” Alford said. “He's a team guy. He's a consummate team player and really helps the younger players on our football team, not just in our room. There are some leadership qualities that are innate for him.”

Folston finished the 2013 season strong with the bulk of his work coming in the final six games. His 88 carries for 470 yards qualifies him as the returning back with the highest per-carry average at 5.3. With an increase in carries and a spike in comfort, Folston showed promise along with that production.

“Tarean's really smooth,” Alford said. “It doesn't look like he's grinding and really pushing himself, but also he's gaining ground and you're not getting big shots on him. He just kind of glides.”

Bryant’s running style could be described in total contrast. He makes the defense aware of every yard he earns.

“He plays the game fast and furious,” Alford said. “He is a powerful individual. He's got the ability to really accelerate into contact. That's something that a lot of guys just don't have.”

The setbacks for Bryant as a freshman were both physical — a minor knee injury – and mental. After soaking in the offense for a full year, Bryant will be given the opportunity to roam free.

His big-play ability was on display in the Blue-Gold Game when he tallied 95 yards on 12 carries, including a highlight-reel scamper of 51 yards.

“Greg has really done a nice job as far as learning the offense, because he really didn't know it,” Alford said. “By his own admission, there were a lot of things that he didn't know. He thought he did, but he didn't.

“His learning curve has really been good. He's cut through it pretty nicely. He plays fast. Every time he's doing something, it's 100 miles an hour. It's a good thing when you have to pull the reins on him to slow down.”

Head coach Brian Kelly doesn’t need many words to describe the trio. McDaniel is the gutsy one. Folston is the smooth one. Bryant is the powerful one. Together they can form a potent combination, and that’s the way the Irish want it.

“We're going to need them all,” Alford said. “You can't go in here with one guy and expect to have success.”

Notre Dame running backs coach Tony Alford, left, talks to his unit during the opening day of spring football practice on Monday, Mar. 3, 2014, at Notre Dame. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)