Throughout the past several months, Notre Dame’s running back situation has been considered one of the premier areas of the team, if not the strongest. After all, what does it say when a transfer from USC, sophomore Amir Carlisle, is considered your fourth option at the end of spring?
Sophomore George Atkinson III had only nine carries for 27 yards as a running back last year but is primed to carry a much heavier workload this season.
All of a sudden, perceptions might be altered a tad. First, it was announced this weekend that senior Cierre Wood, the top rusher the past two years, will be suspended for the first two games because of violating unspecified team rules. Meanwhile, a broken ankle suffered by Carlisle prior to spring has had enough complications to shelve him for certain stints in practices, and he will not be available for the trip to Ireland.
“We want to be very careful with him,” said head coach Brian Kelly of Carlisle, while indicating he might be cleared for action in the near future. “…We don’t want to play him 80 percent That’s why we have been hesitant to get too far along but we have made really good progress.”
That leaves three options for the Navy game:
• Senior Theo Riddick, the starting slot receiver the past two years, carried 14 times for 63 yards (4.5 yards per carry) and no touchdowns last season.
• Sophomore George Atkinson III, one of the nation’s top kick returners last season, carried only nine times for 27 yards and scored on two short touchdown runs in blowouts.
• Sophomore Cam McDaniel, who was shifted to cornerback in the spring, is back full-time, for now, on offense. He had three carries for nine yards in 2011.
A total of 26 carries for 99 yards from the previous year hardly qualifies running back as a team strength to open 2012. Plenty of hope will be invested into Riddick — who actually was ahead of the more decorated USA Today All-American Wood when both enrolled at Notre Dame in 2009. Whereas Wood sat out his freshman season while assimilating to the offense, Riddick was inserted as the top kick return man and also carried 29 times for 160 yards and a 5.5 yards per attempt average.
“Cierre is more of a north-south runner, has a lot of speed, has that breakaway speed,” said senior All-America linebacker Manti Te’o. “Theo is more of a slasher. He’s more of a jump-and-cut runner, he’ll juke anybody out of his pants.”
Riddick was laconic about his new role as the go-to running back in the Irish attack.
“Not much really changes,” said Riddick of becoming the top back. "It’s a game. … I just want to win.”
After two seasons and 84 receptions as a slot receiver in Kelly’s spread attack, the 5-11, 199-pound Riddick feels a sense of rejuvenation from returning “home” again into the backfield.
“There were a lot of things I was rusty at playing wide receiver,” Riddick said. “That was a huge transition in terms of leverage, breaking at certain points. There are a lot of things I had to learn.”
At the newly created hybrid running back/slot position, the objective is to get the ball into the hands of Riddick, Atkinson III, McDaniel, and eventually Wood or Carlisle, in space.
“There’s definitely a difference,” Riddick said. “At slot, you’re not really getting the ball in terms of getting carries. But being a hybrid, you’re getting reverses … it’s a whole new ball game.”
Whereas Riddick doesn’t classify or pigeonhole himself as a certain type of back — “I kind of think I have it all. I can run between the tackles, run outside” — the 6-1, 210-pound Atkinson III is curious about the type of running back he will turn out to be.
“I know as much as you guys know,” Atkinson III smiled. “I’m ready to find out Saturday … I’m going to take it and run with it.”
Along with classmate/quarterback Everett Golson, Atkinson III stole the show in the spring game while displaying his downhill running skills and an extra gear. His 15 carries netted 124 yards (8.3 per carry) — but were overshadowed by two lost fumbles (he fumbled three times on kickoffs last year to go with his two TD returns versus Michigan State and USC, but all three were recovered by the Irish). He also caught three passes for 54 yards, and has continued working on his hands and improving on his ball skills when the football is in the air.
Last year when he was in the huddle late in blowouts and received the hand signals from the sidelines, Atkinson III admitted his first reaction was, “What do I do?” There was still some of it in the spring, but this August he has more calm and confidence in his knowledge base.
“It’s not that difficult at all,” he said. “Once you get a key of the whole offense and what the scheme of everything is, you pick up concepts and you really learn. That’s big step for me from last year, not just knowing one position but actually knowing [what] everybody else is going to do also and what we’re trying to do to the defense.
‘It’s knowing the offense, knowing what routes to run, reading coverages, and that’s something we didn’t have to learn that well last year. It’s really helped me become a better football player learning the defense, coverage, blitzes and everything else.”
What should also aid the running game is that while Golson isn’t a running quarterback, he’s a more bona fide running threat, either rolling out or with the read option.
“Defenses are going to have someone keying on him, and when they key on him, they’re going to forget about us,” Atkinson III noted.
Riddick believes that Golson’s presence might help the vertical passing game even more because it can suck in the linebackers, providing a better chance to throw over the top.
“There’s a lot of things you can do once you have a great running game,” Riddick said.
Going against a Navy defense that finished 92nd against the run last year (186.92 yards per game) and 86th total (413.83), with 56 points given up to Notre Dame, doesn’t hurt either.
“You know how Navy’s offense is — you’re probably only going to get seven or eight possessions — so it’s going to definitely critical that we score on each drive,” Riddick said.