There is a football axiom that states when your top two quarterbacks are equal in ability, it means you have two second-team quarterbacks.
Junior Amir Carlisle broke free for a 45-yard gain on the game's first play against Temple.
What about when you have five running backs with different skills sets vying for playing time, or to become the lead back? It’s not quite the same as being the quarterback, but the preference still would be to not have to use all five in an effort to whittle down to a more settled rotation or rhythm.
That has been the situation confronting Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and the offense ever since the start of training camp. Juniors George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel possess different running traits, but none is appreciably or significantly above the fray. Meanwhile, freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston might possess the higher ceilings, but they have a much steeper learning curve in the college game. Lest one forget, even Notre Dame's most famous or recognizable back the last 25 years, Jerome "The Bus" Bettis, rushed for only 115 yards on 15 carries during his 1990 regular season as a freshman.
In the opening-game 28-6 victory versus Temple, each had his moment(s), but none particularly stood out as the “bellcow,” which former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz once defined as a back who can be entrusted to “carry the ball 20 times every Saturday and not report to practice Monday with a doctor, lawyer or agent.”
• Carlisle was in for the first snap and raced through a gaping hole on the left side for 45 yards. He finished with a game high 68 yards rushing and added two catches for five more yards. Can he be durable and productive enough over the long haul to add more touches?
• McDaniel ended up with the most carries (12 for 65 yards). He’s solid and consistent, but will he possess the extra gear or explosiveness versus the marquee opponents?
• Atkinson (eight carries, 36 yards; one catch, 11 yards) scored the lone rushing touchdown, a two-yard run between the tackles. Can the 6-1 blazer keep his pad level low enough to be the lead back?
• During mop-up time in the fourth quarter, Bryant (two carries, 12 yards) and Folston (five carries, 14 yards; one catch for nine yards) were inserted, with Bryant plowing for a 10-yard gain on his first career carry.
If you combined the quintet into one — 34 carries, 193 yards, 5.7 yards per carry, four catches for 25 yards and no fumbles — you’d have a Heisman Trophy candidate. Right now, though, the most irrelevant question about the running back spot is, “Who will start?” The far more pertinent inquiry to Kelly is, “Who can finish?”
“We played five because we're still trying to find out who that guy is,” Kelly said. “We're not at that point.”
The Fighting Irish might not be there for a while yet, either. The graduation of Theo Riddick (917 yards rushing in 2012) and Cierre Wood (742 yards rushing last season) has left a void in experience, consistency and all-around versatility as runners — inside and outside the tackles — receivers and blockers.
“Last year we knew when we were going to close out the game, Theo Riddick was in the ball game — and we're not there yet,” Kelly said. “We're still searching for that. Everybody is going to have an opportunity to show that that's [his] job.
“All of them are very versatile. They all can do the things that we're asking them to do. We're still searching for that guy to close out ball games.”
With a September gauntlet that includes road games at Michigan and Purdue, a stout Michigan State defense and a hungry, revitalized Oklahoma defense bent on showing improvement, Kelly admits this process might take longer than he wants, mainly because no one yet quite has the full arsenal.
“They all have things that they need to work on,” said Kelly of his five running backs. “I don't think we left the [Temple] game going, ‘You know, we know everything about all these guys.’ I think it's going to take some time for all of them to continue to work and continue to progress.”
Other than Atkinson with his 361 yards rushing last year, nobody in the Irish backfield stable has seen meaningful game-on-the-line action.
“We've got some growing pains a little bit at the position,” Kelly acknowledged. “They're all gifted players, but I think it's going to take us a little time as we grow. We're willing to play them all and we're willing to take all of them and their strengths and try to make it work at that position.”