Way back in 1990, Notre Dame had its ultimate embarrassment of riches at running back, the likes of which were seldom seen in college football history.
Sophomore Cam McDaniel's 20 carries this year have netted 114 yards, and he has also caught two passes that gained 21 and 20 yards.
Fullback featured that year’s leading rusher Rodney Culver, a future pro who would tragically perish in a 1996 plane crash. If needed, Tony Brooks, who still ranks No. 10 on Notre Dame’s all-time rushing chart with 2,274 yards and 5.4 yards per carry, could line up there too. However there still was freshman Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, who was limited to 15 carries as a backup option.
At tailback, there was another future NFL Pro Bowl performer in senior Ricky Watters, with Brooks as a complement. Oh, and just for good measure, flanker and Heisman runner-up Raghib “Rocket” Ismail was often used as the closer in the fourth quarter, rushing for 537 yards and 8.0 yards per attempt as a junior before turning pro.
The backfield was so deep that future Pro Bowl player Dorsey Levens transferred to Georgia Tech and sophomore Reggie Brooks — who would finish 5th in the Heisman Trophy race in 1992 — was playing cornerback that year because there was no room at the running back inn.
The 2012 Notre Dame backfield isn’t quite as replete with talent, but when somebody like sophomore Cam McDaniel can be the fourth option while USC transfer Amir Carlisle is taking a medical red-shirt season — that’s pretty darn impressive
For now, McDaniel is biding his time behind seniors Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, both of whom could have NFL careers as early as next season, unless Wood opts to return for a fifth season. Meanwhile, sophomore game-breaking speedster George Atkinson III has the highest ceiling. Former Irish running back and tri-captain Mark Green of the 1988 national champs was recently a guest on Blueandgold.com’s “Irish Huddle” and was effusive in his outlook of Atkinson’s future.
McDaniel has remained in the shadows yet demonstrated his own skills when he has had the opportunity to work behind the No. 2 line in mop-up duty. In the meantime, he lines up next to Atkinson on kick returns, and also is on the starting kick coverage team.
Against Miami on Oct. 6, McDaniel’s 11 carries netted 55 yards and his first career touchdown, plus he grabbed a 21-yard screen pass. In the opener against Navy, he totaled 59 yards on just nine carries.
“It’s hard to get them all touches,” said head coach Brian Kelly of his pleasant dilemma at running back. “We’re struggling to get those [first] three guys. Cam is one heck of a good running back. He runs it as effectively as any of those three.”
The 5-10, 195-pound Coppell, Texas native was moved to cornerback this spring to aid the thin unit, and was on the verge of more extended playing time. He could still help there in a pinch, but the emergence of freshmen KeiVarae Russell as one starting corner and another freshman, Elijah Shumate, as the No. 1 nickel, provided the staff the luxury to have McDaniel on call for the offense.
It is a testament to the quality of depth that has been infiltrating the program in many areas.
Playing his high school football in one of the premier hotbeds of football talent in the Dallas/Forth Worth area, McDaniel put up superb numbers (1,906 yards rushing, 40 catches and 35 total touchdowns as a senior) against top competition, but equally significant was the offense in which he played.
“He’s used to the inside-outside zone,” said Kelly of the blocking scheme emphasized more by first-year offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and preferred by Kelly. “He came from the shotgun offense and he runs the ball exceedingly well. We have no hesitation of putting him in the game.
“We only have one football. That’s the problem.”
It’s the type of issue every coach strives to attain.