Prior to Saturday’s 45-10 victory at Air Force, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly specifically noted to the broadcasting crew at CBSSports that he wanted to get junior running backs George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle untracked and into a much better rhythm.
Freshman Tarean Folston is trying to get more reps in the backfield.
It never quite materialized. Atkinson’s six carries netted only 18 yards, and his one reception gained one yard. Meanwhile, Carlisle’s three carries totaled three yards.
On the other hand, classmate Cam McDaniel remained the most consistent mainstay in the backfield with his 10 carries for 61 yards, while freshman Tarean Folston’s team high 11 attempts produced 47 yards, highlighted by a number of yards coming after the initial hit or via picking up yardage through minimal crevices. The backfield by committee has the following output after eight games:
• McDaniel has been the most consistent back week to week with his team high 91 carries for 416 yards and 4.6 yards per carry. He is able to pick up the tough yards inside but also is comfortable with zone reads outside.
• Atkinson’s 70 carries have produced 381 yards and a team high 5.4 yards per carry, highlighted by his 80-yard touchdown sprint in the loss to Oklahoma, where he picked up a season high 148 yards on 14 attempts. The rest of his 56 carries have resulted in a modest 4.1 yards average.
• Carlisle has become the enigma. He opened the year with a 45-yard run on the first play and led the team in rushing against Temple (seven carries, 68 yards) and the next week at Michigan (12 carries, 64 yards). Since then, his 25 carries have totaled 61 yards, a 2.4 average per attempt. His totals are 44 carries for 193 yards, or 4.4 yards per carry.
• Folston is beginning to make a push for more reps. His 22 carries have totaled 116 yards, or 5.3 yards per carry.
Kelly indicated in his Sunday teleconference that he doesn’t expect the running back rotation to go through too much flux as the team begins its November push. He isn’t seeking a defined pecking order.
“We want to continue to get as much out of each player as possible,” Kelly said. “We never want to get that point where we’re saying, ‘Alright, we’ve decided on A, B or C.’ We’re far [along] in the season where we still want to be able to maximize the talents of each player.
“Having said that, if we feel like we’ve got a guy out there that is hot, we’re certainly going to ride him as we close the month of November.”
Early on against Air Force, the zone running schemes weren’t as effective. In the second half with McDaniel and Folston, the gap blocking became more productive.
“We have to run zone schemes, we have to run gap schemes, we did a better job mixing them up,” Kelly summarized.
Another missing element out of the backfield has been pass catching. The graduated Theo Riddick excelled in that role (he was a wideout in Kelly’s first two seasons) with 36 catches for 370 yards and two scores last year. In the three October games, running backs were non-factors in the vertical-oriented passing game, combining for two catches. They had none versus Arizona State, McDaniel had one for five yards versus USC and Atkinson’s one against Air Force was good for one yard.
When asked to assess Folston’s progress, Kelly said it’s been going well.
“He’s making nice progress,” Kelly said. “…You have to be really good to take reps away from each one of those guys, but he’s done that. He ran the ball well and effectively and he continues to get better each and every week.”
Blocking, blitz pick-up, etc., haven’t been the main factors in Folston not seeing the field more, according to Kelly. Right now his role is to improve with the ball, not just without it.
“We haven’t asked him to do a ton of it, quite frankly,” said Kelly of Folston’s blocking. “As he continues to grow and mature and getting more reps, he’s going to have to do more of those things … That will be the next level for him.”
Offensive left guard Chris Watt suffered a knee strain against Air Force that led junior Conor Hanratty to play extensively in his place, while junior defensive end Sheldon Day’s ankle continues to be a problem. That resulted in freshman Isaac Rochell seeing much more action and finishing with four tackles. Rochell and classmate/cornerback Cole Luke earned praise from Kelly for their efforts this weekend.
Kelly lists both Watt and Day as “probable” for the upcoming game against Navy. He is hopeful Watt will answer the bell for his 35th consecutive start.
Junior Cat linebacker/end Ishaq Williams, however, is listed as “doubtful” for Navy after suffering a knee injury early against the Falcons. Sophomore Romeo Okwara, junior Ben Councell, senior Justin Utupo and junior Anthony Rabasa all saw a lot of action on the flanks in his place.
Nose guard Louis Nix III did not make the trip to Colorado Springs while battling tendinitis in his knee. Whether he will play against Navy will depend on what kind of quality practices he is able to have, according to Kelly, who still lists Nix as “questionable.”
“When you’re playing an option team, it’s really about getting out there and getting acclimated to what you’re going to see,” Kelly said. “If he has a few days of practice where we really like it, I can change that.”
The cut blocks of service academy teams play a role in the decision, but it’s not the overriding one.
“They don’t like it, clearly,” Kelly said. “They’d rather have teams that don’t go below the waist, but I think they’ve become more aware of how to defend and take on those blocks that it’s less of a concern. … I don’t think they fear injury when they play option teams.”
Sophomore offensive right tackle Ronnie Stanley also was banged up after the Air Force game “but nothing that really concerns me yet,” Kelly said.
Notre Dame is 25th in the coaches' poll but still not in the Top 25 of the AP poll. Kelly was diplomatic about the situation, even though the Irish defeated two teams (Michigan State and Arizona State) ranked ahead of them.
“I think we’re still in a pretty good position as long as we win,” Kelly said. “...We’re only 6-2. If we take care of business and win week after week — we’ve got some quality teams in front of us — I think we’re right where we need to be. Just keep winning football games.”