FORT WAYNE – Notre Dame’s depth at running back will be tested at the start of the season.
Irish coach Brian Kelly announced Sunday that he suspended senior running back Cierre Wood for two games. Kelly also suspended junior defensive end Justin Utupo for two games, citing violation of team rules for the decision in a statement.
Notre Dame opens the season against Navy on Saturday in Dublin, Ireland. The Irish play host to Purdue on Sept. 8.
Our players are aware of the standards I set for our program and that failure to meet my expectations will result in consequences, Kelly said in a statement. Justin and Cierre violated our team rules so I’ve suspended them for the first two games of the season.
Wood was expected to be the starting running back in a talent rich offensive backfield, which includes senior Theo Riddick and sophomore George Atkinson III.
Riddick was listed as the starting running back on the depth chart the Irish released Sunday, and Atkinson is listed as the backup.
Notre Dame also has Amir Carlisle, a transfer from USC who received a waiver and is eligible to play this season. But Carlisle has struggled to return from a broken ankle he suffered in the spring.
Wood had not been made available for interviews during fall camp, and the 6-foot, 215-pounder also missed the first day of camp because he didn’t have all of his medical paperwork in order, according to Kelly.
Wood started nine of 13 games last season, rushing for 1,102 yards with nine touchdowns. He was Notre Dame’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Darius Walker ran for 1,267 yards in 2006.
The loss of Wood does not cripple the Irish’s running game.
Riddick, who was moved to slot receiver two seasons ago, returned to his natural running back position for the final two games last year when Jonas Gray was lost to a knee injury.
Riddick ran for 160 yards on 29 carries as a freshman, and in the last two seasons, he has caught 78 passes for 850 yards with six touchdowns.
Atkinson returned kickoffs last season, averaging 26.1 yards per return. He also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, scoring on an 89-yard return in a 31-13 win over Michigan State on Sept. 17 and on a 96-yard return against USC in a 31-17 loss Oct. 22
Atkinson’s 915 kickoff return yards is a single-season school record.
I think we feel very good about the depth at that position, Kelly said of the running backs at the start of camp on Aug. 3.
Utupo, a 6-1, 258-pound backup, played primarily on special teams in 12 games last year. The suspensions add to the list of players missing the opener for Notre Dame.
Tommy Rees, who started 12 games at quarterback last season, and linebacker Carlo Calabrese are suspended for the first game because of their May arrests, and Lo Wood, who was expected to start at cornerback, was lost for the season to an Achilles injury he suffered at practice Aug. 20.