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Trio of backs develops more than rushing skills

| Thursday, April 10, 2014

While most of the attention paid to the Notre Dame offense during spring practice has been targeted towards the return of senior quarterback Everett Golson, the work of the Irish running backs has not gone unnoticed by their coaches.

“On whole, all three of those guys have had a good spring and really have developed in all of those areas ¾ pass-catching, running the football and pass protection,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s a unit that of all of our units, I feel like they’re developing.”

Last season, the Irish brought a middle-of-the-pack group to the backfield, averaging 4.5 yards per carry, which ranked 52nd among all FBS programs. However, George Atkinson III and his 6.0-yard average departed early for the NFL, leaving Notre Dame looking for a standout to fill his place.

While no one player has become the clear-cut, go-to guy for offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, the three primary Irish rushers — senior Cam McDaniel and sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant — have all worked to see an increased role on the field in the fall.

“It’s not a bad thing,” Folston said of the three-back situation. “With us three running backs, we’re able to give another back a rest, if needed. And we all came in and played hard in the spring and all are going after that ultimate goal.”

McDaniel led the team with 742 yards gained on 152 attempts in 2013, and Folston saw solid playing time as a freshman, averaging 5.3 yards per carry on 88 attempts in 12 games. The highly-recruited Bryant, on the other hand, missed most of the season with a knee injury.

Bryant said the success of his classmate impacted him through his recovery.

“It really encouraged me a lot, because just watching him, Cam, and not just Tarean, but everyone across the country, just watching them play, I was like, ‘Man, I know that I could be making those plays,’” he said. “But, there was no way I could, because I was hurt.

“Basically, it kept me hungry for now, so now, when I come back, I think that I don’t want to be in that situation again.”

Denbrock said having McDaniel, Folston and Bryant share time has helped each develop into a more adaptable player.

“It’s obviously a great situation for us in that there’s still some very good depth there,” Denbrock said. “There’s incredible versatility there. So you can put those guys in different situations and not pigeon-hole them necessarily into, ‘you’re an outside runner, you’re an inside runner,’ but those guys can take all the reps at all the different things, and you can let them sort it out themselves, which is always a good thing.”

Irish running backs coach Tony Alford said his goal in working with the group has been to make each as ready as possible to take the field in the opener against Rice and throughout the season.

“I want to know that there’s enough consistency within their game, within their skillset, that they can help this offense, that any one of them can go in at any time, in anything that we’re doing, and be able to succeed and help this offense,” Alford said.

With Golson back and all but officially set to retake the reins of the offense, the running backs as a unit have worked not only on rushing but also blocking and receiving to develop tha completeness and to complement their signal caller.

Both Denbrock and Kelly said the group has picked up additional responsibility for pass protection and has become more physical as a result, and the coaches lauded the backs’ receiving skills.

“They’ve shown the ability to consistently catch the football, which is always a positive, obviously,” Denbrock said. “You saw us at times last year, we wouldn’t even have a running back on the field. We would have four receivers and a tight end. Having those guys and the versatility to get out of the backfield and do some things with them, that’s just going to help.”

And while McDaniel, Folston and Bryant will compete for playing time to become the No. 1 back, there is not necessarily animosity between them, especially as they train towards a return trip to the national championship game.

“You have to work together in order to achieve that goal,” Folston said. “So everyone’s going to work hard individually, but it’s about bringing all that individual work together as a team to become great.”

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