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Sorting through the running backs

SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame has few questions on offense entering this season.

But one of those questions is who will the Irish use at running back after last season's top rushers, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, left.

Coach Brian Kelly spend the early part of Friday's practice, the first on campus and that was open to the media, looking at his options – which includes juniors George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel, sophomore Will Mahone and freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston.

"I think if you saw how it shook out last year, Theo Riddick was the No. 1 running back because he ran the ball the way we wanted to play the game last year, so that will be the No. 1 running back." Kelly said. "All the other backs will have a role within the offense: It could be pass catching, it could be protection, it could be a little bit of both; somebody that can do all those things. It can be a third-down back; it could be a guy that gets us that tough yard. But the No. 1 clear back will be that guy that runs the ball most effectively that is truly the best running back. That has yet to be determined."

While things are to be determined, Kelly said he has been impressed by Mahone, who didn't play last season, and the two freshmen backs.

"Probably more pleased with that group than any," Kelly said. "You have guys that can help us win right now. Greg Bryant can help us win.

"Will Mahone had a great offseason, he's had a great camp. He's playing a little bit more in (slot receiver). He's got very good ball skills. We didn't even know how good his ball skills were until we started to put him in the slot a little more. He's really come on and probably been one of those guys in the first few days that has caught our attention."

While the running backs have plenty of potential, they are largely unproven.

Atkinson ran for 361 yards and five touchdowns last season, but his role was reduced when Wood returned from a two-game suspension at the start of the season.

McDaniel played in 13 games last season, but he only had 23 rushing attempts. He gained 125 yards and scored a touchdown.

Carlisle, who transferred from USC last season, didn't play in 2013 as he recovered from a broken ankle, and he missed time during spring drills because of a broken collar bone.

"It will just have to be seen," Atkinson said of how good the group can be. "I feel like we can make a big splash on the scene, and all of the sudden it could be, 'Who are these guys running the ball for Notre Dame?'

"But right now, we are just worried about getting through practice and camp together and growing as a group."