Because of a violation of team rules, senior running back Cierre Wood, who loves being the focal point in any situation, could only spectate for the first two games of the year. A two-game suspension, which caused him to miss a trip to Ireland to play Navy, as well as a home opener against Purdue, was a reminder not to take anything for granted.
“It was terrible,” Wood said. “Not playing was terrible. You practice all summer and put in so much work and so much time, to not play those first two games is heartbreaking.”
The Fighting Irish, now 3-0 and ranked No. 11 in the country with a visit from No. 18 Michigan looming , got by without Wood, another reason he has a new level, albeit a subtle one, of humility.
In his return to action at No. 10 Michigan State last weekend, Wood exploded late in the game. It was the kind of performance afterwards he would have typically beat his chest. But following the “signature” road victory, head coach Brian Kelly posed a general question to several of his players, Wood included, hoping for a specific response.
“What did you think about the weekend?” Kelly inquired.
“They all said, ‘we are happy we won, but here is what I've got to do better,’” Kelly recalled. “If we can continue with that kind of mentality, we're going to be fine. When we start talking about, well, you know, ‘that's me, that's how I roll; I'm that kind of player’… if it's all about them, we have some issues. Cierre is now at that point where he understands it's about the team, and when he gets his opportunity, he's got to help the team.”
Wood got that chance early in the fourth quarter in East Lansing, when Notre Dame took possession with a 14-3 lead and backed up on its own 4-yard line. Needing some breathing room — both on the scoreboard and from the goal line — Wood rushed for 45 of his team-high 56 yards on the drive, which ate up over six minutes and produced a 29-yard field goal and a two-touchdown lead.
“I felt I had something to prove,” said Wood, who led the team in 2011 with 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns. “Basically, I just wanted to get the win for my teammates. That’s what it really comes down to.”
For a young man who in the past needed an extra seat on the bus for his own hubris, it seems as if he has put what’s in the group’s best interest ahead of personal pursuits. Wood, the first Irish tailback to rush for over 1,000 yards since Darius Walker chewed up 1,267 in 2006, said he was ecstatic to see classmate Theo Riddick and sophomore George Atkinson III hold down the fort while he served his suspension.
“It’s always great when you see your teammates exceling,” he said. “As a team player, I want to be a part of it and have success along with the rest of my teammates. The way we come in and come out, there are basically fresh legs on the field at all times. All three of us have a great amount of talent, so [the coaches] putting us around in different positions on the field is only going to make our team that much better.”
Former Notre Dame running back Jonas Gray, who is hoping to be activated by the Miami Dolphins from the unable-to-perform list in a month or so, said that side of Wood has slowly come to the surface, beginning last season.
Gray’s emergence in 2011 could have been a major threat to Wood’s mojo. And when Gray turned in a performance he’d like to forget in the season opener against South Florida, which included in a red-zone fumble returned for a Bulls touchdown, Wood wasn’t secretly pumping his fist.
“He’s willing to do whatever it takes to help the team,” Gray said. “I know sometimes it’s hard to figure him out; it was hard for me to figure him out when he first got to Notre Dame. Cierre is one of those guys that couldn’t be farther away from what people perceive him as. He is a team-first guy. In that first game [in 2011] when I had my struggles, he was the first guy to pick me up.
“He didn’t have to do that. I was the older guy — the senior. He could have just not said anything. That showed a lot of maturity from him. He’s going to have a fantastic year, and [the suspension] is really going to make him play harder. He’s going to show his coaches, the players and the fans that he’s a guy they can trust, and that he’ll be there when they need him.”
Notre Dame also needs Wood, within the rules, of course, to still be the same cocky athlete he has always been. That shouldn’t be an issue for a young man seemingly born with a plus-sized ego.
“Unless three, four or five people are tackling me … I don’t think one person can tackle me,” he said. “There was a play I made in the Michigan State game when I stiff-armed a dude, it surprised myself.
“In any game, you can’t be too sure of anything. You can’t take your foot off the gas pedal, and that’s what I felt we did [last year at Michigan]. The results were what they were. But this year is going to be a different outcome.”