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Irish running backs step up

Andrew Owens | Monday, September 3, 2012

DUBLIN – In the absence of 1,000-yard rusher Cierre Wood to suspension, Notre Dame relied on a running back who started at receiver the past two seasons and a sophomore whose only extensive experience is on kickoff returns.

The result was a 50-10 Irish win, achieved by Notre Dame dominating Navy at what the Midshipmen do best: running the football.

Starting running back Theo Riddick – who dabbled at running back as a freshman before moving to the slot position in 2010 and 2011 – has returned to the position at which he feels most comfortable and, in Week One, the results were dazzling.

His 108 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, coupled with sophomore George Atkinson’s 99 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries, powered the Irish offense and relieved the load on first-time starter Everett Golson’s shoulders.
Riddick and Atkinson have created a muddled situation atop the depth chart – a good problem for Irish coach Brian Kelly to have. While Riddick won’t be confused as a power back a la Jonas Gray or Robert Hughes, his contributions in the short-yardage game were paramount in the Irish win.

“It keeps me motivated and brings that ‘want to’ in terms of wanting to get another touchdown,” Riddick said. “We were very confident today. We knew what we had to do. We came in with a great, great gameplan.”

Atkinson’s 56-yard first-quarter touchdown jaunt displayed some of the electricity that allowed him to make an impact on special teams during his freshman season in 2011.

So much for first-game jitters.

“I was excited,” Atkinson said. “You don’t want to come in thinking about negative things, you want to think about how you can be successful.”

With he and Riddick serving as the team’s thunder and lightning in Wood’s absence, what role does that provide for Wood and injured running back Amir Carlisle in the Irish attack?

“I don’t know, we’re going to see though,” Atkinson said. “I can’t wait when all of us are on the field together.”

With Wood watching the game on television from South Bend and Riddick confounding the Midshipmen defense, Kelly said future starting decisions will be made based on future production.

“Everybody has an opportunity to contribute. Those are teammates that we respect and we’ll count on them as we move forward,” said Kelly regarding the four players suspended for the season opener, including Wood. “What their roles are will be defined as we move through the season. They’re valuable members of our football team and we respect that everybody’s got to earn their spot on the field.”

Riddick said the jumbled running back situation motivates him to reach another level, as he said the rushing attack has room for improvement.

“We didn’t have the best game in terms of running, but we just have to improve week in and week out,” he said.
When Atkinson reached the end zone for the first time as a running back, he didn’t perform a special stunt or celebration in the end zone. He simply placed the ball on the ground and r
an to the sidelines.

“I watch a lot of guys in the NFL,” he said. “I like to see big run
ners get broken in. I saw Chris Johnson do it. I watch a lot of highlight tapes … and I just try to imitate [some of] the pros.”
Atkinson fell just a yard short of giving the Irish a pair of 100-yard rushers in the victory, but he wasn’t aware of that fact until postgame interviews.

“I didn’t know. Numbers don’t matter to me as long as we get the victory,” he said.

Riddick said he expects the Irish to run a balanced offense onto the field each week, with each lifting the other

“We can stretch it out and we can run,” Riddick said. “I think [Saturday was] a real coming out for our team. Usually we struggled in the first game in previous years. Today we did very well.” But with Wood and Carlisle’s return on the horizon, it might just be the tip of the iceberg.

Contact Andrew Owens at