As Notre Dame awaits its bowl destination and one final game in 2013, a frustrating year for the Irish is about to come to a close.
In an up-and-down season where the Irish struggled to find consistency, no position better reflected those troubles than at running back.
Four different running backs have started games for Notre Dame this season, but none have scored more than three touchdowns. At a position that needed to replace seniors Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood from a year ago, the Irish just couldn't establish a rhythm.
In retrospect, the struggles of the ground game shouldn't be surprising, except maybe for head coach Brian Kelly. From the opening of preseason camp, Kelly made it clear that while there wasn't much experience in this group, the talent was certainly there.
"We're just really blessed to have such great talent at the running back position," Kelly said in August. "I don't know that I've ever had as much depth at the running back position in all my years of coaching. All of them can contribute to our success."
Kelly and running backs coach Tony Alford couldn't get much out of the Irish ground game, which averaged a respectable 4.5 yards per carry, but ranked just 82nd in rushing offense. A year after averaging 200 yards during the regular season, the Irish couldn't crack 150 and produced only three 100-yard rushers this season.
With Tommy Rees graduating and Everett Golson returning for next season, expect an additional emphasis on running the football in 2014. And with every back returning to next year's roster, expect a battle royale this spring.
Let's go over the contenders:
|Running Back||Year||Yards||YPC||TDs||Best Game|
|Will Mahone||Junior||0||0||0||Didn't Play|
Projected Spring Roster
Not too many people expected McDaniel to lead the Irish in rushing this season, so counting the Texan out for his senior year would be foolish. Miscast as Notre Dame's battering ram this season, McDaniel still averaged a respectable 4.6 yards per carry, though carrying 207 pounds he lacked a top-end gear that the rest of the contenders possess.
Kelly has relied on seniors heavily in his four seasons in South Bend, and McDaniel looks like the perfect veteran to play a key role. While he might be the least talented of the candidates, McDaniel is the most trusted.
Projected Spot on the Spring Depth Chart: 1
Bursting onto the scene late, Folston looks like the team's No. 1 back heading into its season-ending bowl game. Injuries and a crowded backfield kept him from getting early opportunities, but Folston made the most of his chances from late-October on, and his performance against Navy was one of the best of the season.
Showing vision and an ability to make people miss that the team's veteran backs don't seem to possess, Folston has natural ability that the coaching staff noted early in his recruitment. Outside of being forgotten against Pitt, Folston earned double-digit carries in four of the team's last five games. No other back saw that much action.
Still, don't expect Folston to walk into spring with a starting job. Kelly's going to make him earn it.
Projected Spot on the Spring Depth Chart: 2
If Irish fans accuse Kelly of having a soft spot for Rees, they could say the same thing about Atkinson. At 6'2", 220 pounds and with elite top-end speed, Atkinson is the type of athlete who mesmerizes coaches, but he'll also drive them crazy.
Three years into his college career, Atkinson still doesn't run like a back who wants to lead a team, but it's hard to ignore his big-play ability. Atkinson has broken off runs of 10 yards or more in 10 of 12 games this season.
Watch him run against Oklahoma and you swear the light bulb has turned on. Then you threw your hands up in frustration when you watched him disappear a week later against Arizona State and tiptoe on returns and runs.
As dangerous as Atkinson can be in the open field, he just hasn't shown the natural ability to be more than a one-dimensional speedster.
Projected Spot on the Spring Depth Chart: 3
It was a difficult season for Carlisle, who finally saw the field at Notre Dame after sitting out last season with a slow-healing ankle.
While he was an afterthought at the end of the season, carrying the ball just 10 times after Oct. 1, the USC transfer carried the load for the Irish through their first three games until a late fumble against Purdue relegated Carlisle to spot duty.
Carlisle's fumble against the Boilermakers did more than cough the ball up at an inopportune time. It also seemed to rob the 190-pound back of his confidence, with the dual-threat dropping multiple passes ever since and struggling to assert himself in the ground game.
There was likely some rust on Carlisle, who managed to stay healthy this season, but still couldn't stay on the field. Carlisle, however, has too much talent to count out, so look for him to be an offseason reclamation project.
Projected Spot on the Spring Depth Chart: 4
It was a frustrating season for Bryant, who came in as a 5-star running back that many expected to contribute immediately. After dazzling onlookers and coaches during preseason camp and coming in physically built like an upperclassman, Bryant got just two touches against Temple and just one more against Purdue before being shut down.
Who Should be the No. 1 Running Back on the Spring Depth Chart?
For weeks, fans wondered if Bryant's lack of touches was a product of unhappiness, with online message boards ablaze over worries that the highly rated recruit would want to go home.
Those fears were alleviated when Kelly announced that Bryant had knee surgery to repair an injured meniscus. Seeing playing time in just three games before being injured, Bryant saved a year of eligibility. Still, that won't make things easier for him next year when he will still be facing off against the four guys who did get their chances to run the ball this season.
That said, expect Bryant to come out like someone hoping to make up for lost time this spring. There's a reason he was a 5-star recruit. Bryant might have the most talent of any back on the roster. He'll just need to work hard enough to get his chance to use it.
Projected Spot on the Spring Depth Chart: 5
Almost the forgotten man, Mahone gave Notre Dame's coaching staff something to think about this fall as he nearly played his way onto the field at slot receiver after impressing during preseason camp. But any forward momentum was lost when a high-ankle sprain slowed Mahone down and the Ohio native wasn't heard from again.
The fact that Mahone has the ability to compete at a position stacked with talent surprised many. However, while Mahone was able to get into the conversation was one thing, playing his way onto the field has been quite another.
At 214 pounds, Mahone might be the big back that the Irish desperately need after failing to hold onto blue chip recruit Elijah Hood, who walked away from his commitment to the Irish to stay home and play for North Carolina.
But Mahone will need to take the field this spring with a purpose, because finding carries in a six-man position group will be tough sledding. It will be telling if Kelly practices Mahone with the running backs or the slot receivers.
Projected Spot on the Spring Depth Chart: 6
* Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.