SOUTH BEND – Each drill has to be crisp. Every exercise must be performed at maximum efficiency. Every play has to be absorbed and memorized down to the last detail.
Because if you don’t perform at the highest level as a Notre Dame running back this year, there are plenty of other players ready to fill that role.
That’s what having a lot of depth brings, junior running back George Atkinson III said. You have to push yourself. It is either you are going to rise to the occasion or you’re not.
The No. 14 Irish running backs will have their first chance to rise to the occasion Saturday when Temple comes to Notre Dame Stadium.
And while all the running backs – juniors Atkinson, Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel and freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston – may not play against the Owls, each back is aware he is competing for playing time during every practice and every game.
I think it’s an audition every week for all of our players, right? I think some guys are put in that position, coach Brian Kelly said. Whether all five of them get that opportunity this weekend for that audition, I don’t know. But certainly I think you could characterize it as such.
They’re not all going to get 20 carries, right, so they’re going to get their chance, and they’re going to have to make the best of their opportunity. But I can tell you this, that at some point at some time in the season, you’re going to get a chance to see all those guys play.
The only running back guaranteed not to get a chance in the season opener is sophomore Will Mahone, who will sit out Saturday because of a high right ankle sprain.
For the rest, Saturday’s game is the first of 12 auditions to help Notre Dame improve on the 189.4 rushing yards per game and 23 rushing touchdowns the team had last season when the running game was spearheaded by Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, who combined for 1,659 yards and nine touchdowns.
Atkinson is the only running back with much of a track record and is listed as the starter. He has run for 388 yards with seven touchdowns in 25 games with 361 yards and five touchdowns coming last year.
McDaniel, who mainly played special teams his first two seasons, saw spot duty at running back and has run for 124 yards with a touchdown on 26 carries. Carlisle, a transfer from USC, was limited to 19 carries for 118 yards with the Trojans because of knee and ankle injuries and missed last season because of a broken ankle. Bryant was rated the No. 2 best running back recruit by Rivals.com, and Folston was No. 13.
While the backs are competing against one another, Carlisle said it is a unified group with the only goal being to help the team.
We are all great, good players, Carlisle said. We push each other to become better. I don’t look it as trying to one up somebody else. I look at like we are collective group, and we need to be a unit that is reliable, that can be a tough, hard-nosed group for the team. We lift each other up as a group, so we can be the best we can be collectively.
Note: Kelly told reporters Thursday that freshman quarterbak Malik Zaire will not play Saturday as he recovers from mononucleosis. Reciever Luke Massa, who came to Notre Dame as a quarterback, will backup starter Tommy Rees and No. 2 QB Andrew Hendrix. Kelly said he expects Zaire to be cleared for the game against Michigan on Sept. 7.