Notre Dame played its 84th annual Blue-Gold game to much fanfare on a chilly, but sunny South Bend morning. The highly anticipated game put a spotlight on the ongoing battle for the starting running back position.
If George Atkinson III was the front-runner for starting running back coming into the spring game, his performance Saturday certainly did not cement his candidacy. He continued to have trouble reading his blocks, but on the bright side, his explosive speed was occasionally displayed.
Atkinson received a wake-up call before halftime. Failing to stay low while running, he darted into the defensive line and was drilled by linebacker Carlo Calabrese in a hit that was sure to leave Atkinson seeing stars.
Unfortunately, Amir Carlisle did not play in the spring game due to a broken collarbone. The USC transfer has had more than his fair share of injuries. Last season he was sidelined due to an ankle injury, forcing him to sit out the entire season. Carlisle is a quick and elusive runner who has great hands and will be a huge asset to the Irish if he is able to remain healthy this season.
Cam McDaniel had an uneventful game. The junior out of Coppell, Texas only scored one touchdown last season.
According to Bob Wieneke of the South Bend Tribune, he has high hopes for this season. McDaniel has good speed and a knack for finding holes, but he will need to generate a few big, attention-grabbing plays during summer practice if he wants to see substantial time on the field this fall.
Redshirt freshman Will Mahone had a disappointing spring game. If he fails to elevate his game, he may not see much time on the field this fall. Mahone's size and physical style of play will serve him well as he continues to learn the playbook, but for now expect to see him in a secondary role to Atkinson and Carlisle.
Freshman running backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston do not arrive on campus until this summer, but any discussion of the running back position should include them.
Bryant, a Rivals.com ranked 5-star recruit, has amazing speed and great vision on the field. If he is able to make a smooth transition to the next level this summer, I have the utmost confidence he will be on the depth chart this fall.
Folston is a strong running back too, but with all that talent on the field he will most likely be redshirted so he can learn the playbook.
So who will be Notre Dame's star running back this fall?
Unfortunately, at this point there is no way of knowing. Atkinson did not have a good game, and Carlisle was not there, so at this point in time we can not accurately juxtapose the two front-runners for the top RB spot. McDaniel and Mahone were also unspectacular, so no one player has emerged as the clear leader.
The larger issue at present is whether any of these guys are able to live up to the run-heavy offense Brian Kelly has championed while at Notre Dame.
While all of these young men are talented and highly capable, none of them seem able to produce a level of reliability that would make the Fighting Irish running game bulletproof this fall.
Obviously, one game is not indicative of a player's overall ability, but Irish fans would be wise to keep a sharp eye on the running back position when practice resumes. If none of the running backs are able to cut the mustard this fall, it could be disastrous for the Notre Dame offense.
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