Notre Dame running backs George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle head into the season-opener against Temple looking to prove they can be reliable every down backs.
They face different challenges. Atkinson needs to show he can be more than a change-of-pace back with breakaway speed, while Carlisle needs to show his body can take a pounding after missing last season with an ankle injury and then missing the end of spring practice with a broken collarbone.
The question heading into the season is: Who will emerge as the primary ball-carrier? The top two rushers from last season, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, are gone. That leaves Atkinson, son of former Oakland Raiders great George Atkinson Jr., as the leading returning rusher and listed as the starter for the 14th-ranked Irish when they open the season Saturday against Temple.
Coach Brian Kelly has said Riddick developed into the top back last season because he ran the ball the way the coaches wanted. He said that likely will be the determining factor again this season.
Atkinson was third on the team last season with 361 yards rushing and averaged an impressive 7.1 yards a carry. That included a 56-yard touchdown run against Navy and a 55-yard touchdown run against Miami. The knock on the former sprinter, though, is that he runs too upright and he tries to break each carry instead of grinding out a few yards when he needs to.
Atkinson said he's constantly reminded that he's got to get his pads lower — most notably in the spring game when linebacker Carlo Calabrese leveled him on a run inside.
"It's pretty easy (to remember) when you've got random people telling you, 'Keep your pad level down, George.' And my dad and my coaches harp on it, so I made it an emphasis of my game," Atkinson said.
He said he focused last season on trying to make big plays because he knew he wasn't going to get a lot of carries.
"Now, just maturing as a player and a back, realizing not every play is going to be a big one," he said. "Positive plays are great. You just have to keep pushing the ball."
Running backs coach Tony Alford said Atkinson understands the game better.
"George was a guy who always wanted to have an excuse about why certain things happened or, 'It wasn't my fault,'" Alford said. "His approach has been amazing. His attention to detail of how to run routes, how to look at coverages, how to breakdown coverages. Now when George tells you what happened, it's what happened."
The Irish are adding a new wrinkle, installing the pistol formation. Kelly said he believes it will help Atkinson.
"He's got great speed and acceleration. He ran downhill very well in high school, and we felt like the pistol could fit him very well," Kelly said.
Notre Dame fans will finally get a chance to see Carlisle in action after hearing coaches rave about how he looked in the spring before being injured. Carlisle said he was disappointed that he was injured last season and in the spring, but said he isn't worried that he's injury prone.
"Even though I was hurt in the spring, I look at it as I'll be healthy for the season," Carlisle said.
As a freshman at USC, Carlisle rushed for 119 yards on 19 carries. He said the year off the field left him more motivated.
"I just have that hunger to get back on the field. I took the mentality that nothing's going to stop me from achieving my goals," he said.
Alford describes Carlisle as a tough back.
"He's a really dynamic player. He has really good hands. He runs the ball inside. He's a smart football player," Alford said. "He's spent time in the film room learning the ins and outs of the nuances of what we're trying to get done. I'm expecting some big things. He's got to do some things for this offense."
Carlisle could also see some action as a slot receiver, just as Riddick did.
"I just want to be able to do as many things as possible so the coaching staff can feel comfortable putting me anywhere on the field," Carlisle said. "The more things you can do as a player the more valuable you become."
Kelly said he expects junior Cam McDaniel, freshman Greg Bryant and others to contribute to the running game this season as well.
"We're just really blessed to have such great talent at the running back position. I don't know that I've ever had as much depth at the running back position in all my years of coaching," Kelly said. "All of them can contribute to our success."