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RBU: ‘Running Back U’

Andrew Owens | Thursday, September 20, 2012

Notre Dame’s three top running backs do everything together. They practice together, play together and hang out together.
But when all three are in the same room, it’s obvious what their greatest pleasure is: arguing together.

“I call [sophomore George Atkinson] ‘Stallion’ because he runs and gallops like a horse,” senior Cierre Wood said.
“Or because he looks like a horse,” senior Theo Riddick said with a laugh.

The trio forms Notre Dame’s set of rollicking rushers. They lightheartedly argue about each other’s nicknames, which player is the best-looking (“It’s obviously me,” Atkinson said) and which of the three is most talented at video games (“I’m the best on the team,” Riddick said).

When you dig past the blithe personas, there’s one thing they all agree on: the group’s talent, even if they can’t agree on a name.

“RBU: Running Back University,” Wood said.

“Three-headed monster,” Riddick said.

Keeping each other fresh

During last week’s 20-3 win at Michigan State, Riddick, Wood and Atkinson carried the ball 12, 10 and five times, respectively, for 138 yards. Riddick said splitting the carries helped the trio late in the game.

“Oh yeah,” Riddick said. “You’re taking less hits. You get to catch a breather, so you’ll feel fresher overall, physically and mentally.

“I think we all want to be [the main running back], but it’s what’s best for this team. Obviously what the coaches have been doing has been successful.”

Atkinson said their success is fueled by each other’s play.

“Definitely,” he said. “It takes some pressure off each other and we feed off each other too. Someone might make the big run, so then the next guy wants to make the big run.”

At times, the format can be a double-edged sword, Wood said.

“The way we come in and out, it’s kind of hard to get a rhythm, but [Irish coach Brian Kelly] always says you have to stay the course and keep pushing, and that’s what I did and they called me [at Michigan State] and I got the job done.”

Serving in many roles

Kelly has taken advantage of the players’ versatility by creating a hybrid role this season in which the running backs can also contribute as a receiver.

Riddick, who played receiver his sophomore and junior seasons after debuting at running back, said his ability to play different positions has aided his performance in 2012.

“My whole life I was only a running back. I had good hands and went out for a few passes here and there, but mainly I was a running back,” he said. “My versatility really came in at the collegiate level and enhanced my game.

“I feel comfortable everywhere. I played wide receiver for two years and now I’m in the backfield.”

Atkinson dabbled at both running back and receiver in high school and said he is benefiting from his background at both positions while still fine-tuning his play out wide.

“It’s helped tremendously,” he said. “The coaches back home prepared me well to play both positions. Coming [to Notre Dame], I didn’t know what I was going to play, so I prepared for both positions that summer and I’m still developing at receiver and running plays and catching the ball.”

In 2011, Atkinson starred as the Irish kick returner and impressed with his blazing speed while reaching the end zone twice, an experience he considers vital to his 2012 success.

“It helped a lot to find out how fast the game goes and I believe special teams is faster than the regular snap on the field because guys are running full speed at you,” he said. “You have to make quick reads, so it helped a lot to get on the field and get experience and hearing the crowd and getting used to everything else. Coming in the next year, I knew what to expect.”

This season, Riddick has not only shown off his speed and athleticism, but also his strength. In the Sept. 1 season-opening 50-10 win over Navy, Riddick rushed for some first downs on short-yardage plays; against Michigan State, he even contributed as a lead-blocker for Wood on a few carries.

“He’s always been a hard-nosed type of runner and blocker,” Atkinson said. “I wasn’t surprised he’s doing those kinds of things and I’m learning from him so when I’m thrown in there and I can block them and the same with Cierre.”

Kelly said the different offensive looks have been advantageous for the Irish during the team’s first 3-0 start in 10 years.

“It’s a tough matchup group,” he said. “When you think of some of the formation groupings … It creates some issues. And you know, we’ll continue to utilize those multiple groupings. They work well for us.

“[We have] versatility … We have to get George some more touches, because we think we have got really three backs that have equal starting ability. They can be stars and starters. We have to make sure we integrate them all into the offense.”

Next man in

During Wood’s two-game suspension for a violation of team rules, Riddick and Atkinson carried the load. Wood’s return gives Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin the ability to let Wood adjust to game speed without rushing him.

“I think the implications are more about being fresh in the fourth quarter,” he said. “He had fresh legs. He had not played in a couple weeks. He didn’t have a lot of carries leading up to he later carries that he got [against Michigan State].

“He played like a guy who had a couple weeks off, and I think
that depth at running back is going to allow us to keep turning those guys in and have four quarters of physical play at the running back position.”

Atkinson rushed for 99 yards on nine carries and scampered into the end zone twice in the season-opening romp against Navy in Dublin, but don’t expect his teammates to be amazed
by his 2012 breakthrough.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Wood said. “I see him every day, I run with him every day. I practice with him every day. It was just a matter of time before those plays exposed him.”

Wood was proud to see Atkinson emerge, but congratulatory text messages weren’t the only ones he sent his fellow running backs.

“I was laughing at [Riddick] because I know there were a couple times he got hit and it hurt,” Wood said. “I texted him and I said, ‘I know that hurt,’ and stuff like that. After [the game] he said, ‘Yeah, man, it did. They hit pretty hard.'”

For this trio, everything’s a laughing matter.

Contact Andrew Owens at
aowens2@nd.edu