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April 22, 2011

It's a wrap…Running back

Go to the head of the classCierre Wood has gone through so many phases at running back already, it's surprising that he isn't tapping out on eligibility. He's gone from hot-shot running back prospect to red-shirtedfreshman to back-up running back trying to keep his head above water to starter midwaythrough his first year of eligibility. He'll be entering his junior year academically with three years of collegefootball remaining.

Wood rushed for 603 yards on 119 carries (5.1) in 2010 after preserving a year of eligibility as a freshman. He did his best work in the last three games of the season when he rushed for 88 yards on 14 carries against Army (6.3-yard average), 89 yards on 15 carries against USC (5.9), and 81 yards on 12 carries (6.7) against Miami in the Sun Bowl. He rushed for 258 yards over the final three games, averaging an impressive 6.29 yards on 41 carries.

"Singularly, confidence," said Kelly of Wood's improvement since the conclusion of the 2010 season. "I guess that's probably maturity and confidence coming together at the same time. We all knew he had a lot of talent. Now it's all coming together. He understands how to do things."

In position to contribute Incoming freshman Cam McDaniel arrives this summer as a let's-wait-and-see running back prospect who is needed in a big way. For months, the Irish had Michigan product Justice Hayes verbally committed in the recruiting process, only to see him change his mind and sign with Michigan.

As the Irish flailed away in pursuit of a running back, along came McDaniel, a 5-foot-10, 192-pounder from Coppell, Texas whose prep teammate - Bennett Okotcha - also verbally committed to the Irish. McDaniel chose the Irish, but Okotcha eventually signed with Oklahoma

While there was talk of McDaniel coming in as a slot receiver for the Irish, the need at running back is too great to place him at another position. McDaniel carried an impressive 301 times for 1,906 yards (6.3 yards per carry) and 32 touchdowns as a senior. He also caught 40 passes for 492 yards and three more scores to help lead Coppell to a 13-1 record and the No. 2 ranking in the Texas Class 5A ranks.

Can McDaniel come in and contribute right away? That means blitz pick-ups, especially, have to be sound in addition to showing that he can play a tough, physical brand of football. He showed that toughness on the high school level. The Irish need that to translate to the college gridiron - immediately.

Opening eyes Per running backs coach Tim Hinton in the spring, junior-to-be Theo Riddick spent his time with the receivers, not working at running back in the Wildcat or Leprecat (Notre Dame vernacular) formation. But Riddick certainly is capable of giving the Irish an alternative with the ball carrying duties if Wood needs a break and/or Gray does not come around.

Riddick rushed for 160 yards and a 5.5-yard average as a freshman in 2009. He looked the part, showing good wiggle and vision. But with the arrival of Brian Kelly, the Irish needed a slot receiver, and Riddick fit the bill there, too. After catching 40 passes for 414 yards and three touchdowns, Riddick was considered at running back this spring, per Kelly's winter suggestion. But if he took reps at that spot, it was kept under wraps.

The Irish are too lean in numbers and experience at receiver to move Riddick back to running back. But Kelly is creative, and he'll come up with ways to put the football in Riddick's hands, and that likely means at least a few reps taking the direct snap in the Leprecat.

Considering alternatives Incoming freshman George Atkinson III is assumed to be a wide receiver on the collegiate level. Yet it is at running back and as a return man that he created his fame, rushing for 1,669 yards on 172 carries (9.7 yards per carry). He caught just 27 passes as a senior, but those receptions accounted for 678 yards for an incomparable 25.1 yards per catch.

In the 6-foot-2/6-foot-3 range, Atkinson's dimensions say wide receiver, not running back, on the collegiate level. Plus, the Irish have a need at wide receiver as well. It would be a surprise if the Irish didn't create opportunities for Atkinson to carry the football out of the backfield. But his future likely is at receiver.

At the crossroads It's now or never for Jonas Gray, and fortunately for the Irish senior in his final year of eligibility, the lack of numbers in the offensive backfield placed him No. 2 on the depth chart behind Cierre Wood. But while Brian Kelly and running backs coach Tim Hinton were quick to say that Gray was making progress this spring, such positive comments usually were followed by an example of Gray a) not playing physically, b) not lowering his pad level and c) not maximizing his opportunities to fill the power back role that Robert Hughes offered in Notre Dame's exciting conclusion to the 2010 season.

The Irish have no choice but to extend Gray's leash when it comes to remaining patient with his deliberate development. They simply don't have the bodies to be shortsighted. But if Gray doesn't continue to show improvement, it will force Notre Dame to lean heavily on Wood, experiment with a few alternatives (see above), and perhaps overemphasize the passing game, which was not when the Irish were at their best in 2010.

With four years of eligibility heading into the fall, it's a tad early to be declaring Cameron Roberson at the crossroads. And yet he's coming off damage to two ligaments in his left knee this spring, and likely will miss a large portion of the off-season strength and conditioning. Even when he was healthy, Roberson was not in the mix to push for playing time with Wood and Gray, per Kelly's early spring comments.

Roberson is fortunate the Irish didn't fully supplement their running back corps during the last recruiting phase, otherwise he would be completely on the outside looking in. As it is, Roberson needs to get healthy quickly and make a move before Kelly pinpoints the running back spot and knocks it out of the park in the recruiting campaign, which he has a knack for doing when the Irish have a significant need.

projected depth chart 1) Cierre Wood, 2) Jonas Gray, 3) Cam McDaniel, 4) Cameron Roberson

Spring depth charts
Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Offensive Line

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