Last year my esteemed colleague Eric Murtaugh wrote an article stressing the importance of Notre Dame running backs achieving the 2,000-yard mark. I strongly disagreed with him, saying that he was putting too much emphasis on a set number and that a balanced attack was the way to go.
One year later, the shoe is on the other foot. While I don't think that the Irish have to go over 2,000 yards to be successful, I do think that Cierre Wood or whoever the primary running back is needs to be right around 230 to 250 rushing attempts to make a statement—a statement aimed at future Irish running backs.
If Wood carries the ball 240 times and averages the same 5.07 yards per carry that he did in 2010, that would put him at 1,217 rushing yards and most likely in the top 20 in the nation.
That number of carries is not out of the question. Wood and Armando Allen combined for 226 carries and 1,117 yards. Give Jonas Gray the 20 carries that he had last season plus the 68 carries that Robert Hughes had, and if he maintains his five yards per carry average, you have another 440 yards. For Cam McDaniel to get 25 carries and 100 yards wouldn't be out of the question either.
Why all this emphasis on carries and yardage? The answer is simple: recruiting. When coach Brian Kelly sits down with some of the top prep running backs in the nation, like Keith Marshall or Brionte Dunn, he could say, "Look, my primary running back carried the ball 240 times last season for over 1,200 yards; you can do the same."
Recruits want to know that they are going to be utilized to their fullest capacity. This is one of the reasons that Notre Dame lands the best tight ends year after year. They come to South Bend knowing that they will get the ball.
Judging by Kelly's years with the Cincinnati Bearcats, he never had a running back rush for over 810 yards, so the coach himself will have to change his theory a bit. Kelly seems to like to spread the ball around with different backs.
Another factor is Kelly's uptempo offense. It is no secret that the offense that took the field last season was a watered-down version of what the future holds. Furthermore, when Dayne Crist went down with an injury and true freshman Tommy Rees took over, the offense got scaled back even more.
When Coach Kelly's offense is running on all cylinders, fans can look for every possession to look like a two-minute drill. While at Cincinnati, Kelly's teams averaged 26 seconds between plays. Notre Dame under Charlie Weis averaged 30 seconds, while the national average is 32 seconds.
What does all this mean for the running game? The increased tempo keeps the defense from making substitutions. It also allows for switching the tempo to confuse defensive units. It also creates more plays from scrimmage, which equals more rushing attempts.
Look for more rushing from Notre Dame in 2011. The Irish were a perfect 7-0 when outrushing their opponents last season. A stat like that cannot be over looked.
Entering his second season, Kelly has had the time to get his offensive scheme implemented, and fans should see results on both sides of the ball—especially in the backfield.