Faith fuels RB Cam McDaniel's ascendance at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Cam McDaniel’s Notre Dame football career was turning into one leap of faith after another.

So when Irish head coach Brian Kelly, looking for a safety net at cornerback 2½ years ago, asked McDaniel to flip to cornerback, it seemed to fit right in to the theme of the crowded running back depth chart he was vacating, given he had never played the position in his life.

The numbers, the circumstances, public sentiment seemed to be pushing McDaniel toward ordinariness, if not obscurity, at every turn.

“I think maybe doubt creeps in every once in a while for every player that comes in,” McDaniel, one of Notre Dame’s four newly anointed captains, said Wednesday after practice.

“But you can’t let it resonate and stay within you. If you want to excel and you want to be an impact player and you want to do great things at this university, you’ve got to expect to win, you’ve got to expect to thrive.

“I’ve said this a lot, I think that it’s important to just take advantage of the opportunities that you’re given and then expect a lot, expect to do big things.”

And that he is — not only expecting but doing, on and off the field.

The 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior and ND’s leading returning rusher (705 yards, 152 carries) is part of the three-headed monster at running back — along with high-ceiling sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant — expected to excavate the Irish from the depths of a No. 80 national ranking in rushing offense last season.

His busy offseason also included getting married in May and recently finding out he and wife Stefani are expected to become parents next April.

“I think in 2014 I’ve grown up more than pretty much the rest of my life combined,” he said. “And the season isn't even here yet.”

It arrives Saturday at approximately 3:30 p.m. EDT, with McDaniel and the rest of the 17th-ranked Irish opening against a team from the Coppell, Texas product’s home state, Rice, on the brand new FieldTurf at Notre Dame Stadium.

That McDaniel, as captain, is trying to prod his Notre Dame football teammates into believing that the college football world is every bit as presumptuously underestimating this Irish team as it was before the preseason unranked 2012 iteration stormed into the national championship discussion, is hardly a surprise.

It’s who he’s become, a big talker and dreamer, who has the history to back it up.

McDaniel stayed at cornerback the entire spring and summer of 2012 and into fall training camp. Viable options to puff up a shallow pool of candidates at that position continued to evaporate. That included losing potential starter Lo Wood to a season-ending injury in August of that year.

Earlier, in March of 2012, touted cornerback recruit Tee Shepard left school two months after enrolling early reportedly due to standardized test score issues related to his admission.

Another standout cornerback recruit, Ronald Darby, decommitted late in the 2012 recruiting cycle and flipped to Florida State. The Irish will see him in Tallahassee, Fla., on Oct. 18.

Two others, Anthony Standifer and Yuri Wright, proved not to be institutional fits.

"He (Kelly) said, ‘I think you can go out and compete for a starting job,” McDaniel recalled of Kelly’s cornerback plea. “And I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’

“But before I left the room, I said, ‘This is for one year, right? Because I came here to play running back.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s for one year. I need you here for one year.’

“And so I really didn’t know what that would look like.”

A freshman running back recruit, KeiVarae Russell, changed all in less than three weeks after Kelly switched him to defense. He ended up starting the entire year during ND’s 2012 title-game run. And McDaniel got to go back to running back for the most part, occasionally cross training.

One of those weeks was when Notre Dame ventured into Oklahoma on Oct. 27, 2012, as a 12-point underdog and ended up rocking the Sooners, 30-13.

McDaniel, swapped his uniform No. 33 and donned No. 21 that night in Norman, Okla., to honor former high school teammate Jacob Logan, who drowned earlier that month.

Because the Irish planned to play lots of nickel and dime sets, schemes that require extra defensive backs, against the Sooners, McDaniel practiced as a defensive back just in case.

Then, when fellow running back and kick returner George Atkinson III went down with the flu and missed the game, McDaniel was ready to fill in behind Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick at running back. He did end up returning four kickoffs for 77 yards.

Kelly awarded McDaniel the game ball after the verdict that solidified the Irish as a national title contender. From there, the ascendance of McDaniel into a key player began, but slowly.

It was his sure-handedness and persistence in helping close out Purdue in game three last season that accelerated the process. He carried the ball eight consecutive plays to preserve the narrow 31-24 escape.

“I may seem more patient during interviews than I am in real life,” he said of the slow climb to prominence.

And now?

“He's our best overall running back,’ Kelly said. “I mean, if you were to grade out our running backs in every facet — blocking, catching, assignments, running the football with patience.

“Now, is he going to break that (long run) and get the oohs and the ahs from the crowd and go 80 yards? Probably not.

“We've got some guys, like a Greg Bryant, (who) can do that. And Folston is a really smooth operator and very productive. But Cam is so efficient in everything that he does for us. He's invaluable from that perspective.”

And now he adds to that being a leader, a strong voice with a powerful personal narrative from which to draw.

“The Lord is faithful in those situations and he’s proven himself each and every time,” McDaniel said. “I think my experience here has been priceless.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6112 | @EHansenNDI

Senior running back Cam McDaniel was named a captain earlier this week. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHAT: No. 17 Notre Dame (0-0) vs. Rice (0-0)

WHEN: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (EDT)

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium; South Bend, Ind.

TV: NBCRADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN -FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 21.