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Zuba: Rushing game key to ND success (April 11)

| Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Irish will once again have a crowded backfield this season, even with the departure of former running back George Atkinson to the NFL Draft.

In order to improve on last season’s performance, Notre Dame will need consistent, effective rushing production to open up the passing game and to provide scoring insulation for an inexperienced defense. The defense has a great deal of potential, but with the loss of

Louis Nix, Prince Shembo and Stephon Tuitt, the Irish might need some extra insurance.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly will have three main backs from which to choose, most of whom have considerable game experience: Sophomore Greg Bryant, sophomore Tarean Folston and senior Cam McDaniel. Of the group, only Bryant saw little action after his 2013 campaign was cut short by a knee injury.

Last year, Notre Dame employed a rushing-by-committee strategy. Kelly played five running backs (Atkinson, senior Amir Carlisle, McDaniel, Bryant and Folston) in the season opener against Temple and continued to rotate the group throughout the season, as the Irish amassed 1,963 rushing yards, still less than the total for their opponents.

If Notre Dame hopes to excel this season, it will have to step up the running game. Having a backfield crowded with talent provides the Irish with a wealth of opportunities, but they need to maximize their potential.

This means establishing the running back depth chart and rotation early in the season so that players understand and can focus on their roles. Notre Dame should stay flexible to adjust to specific matchups and because injuries do happen, but adjustments should occur within some sort of structure.

As a senior, McDaniel has an opportunity to lead and help shape the running back corps. McDaniel led the Irish with 152 rushes for 705 yards in 2013, followed by Atkinson with 93 carries for 555 yards. If McDaniel can build on his past production, he will be a solid foundation for Notre Dame’s running game.

The loss of Atkinson leaves a pretty significant hole in production, which the Irish will have to fill. McDaniel could pick up more carries, but Folston also seems poised to ramp up his production. Folston heated up over the course of his freshman campaign and collected his largest numbers of carries and rushing yards in the season’s final six games. Bryant also has the ability to step up after redshirting as a freshman,

Overall, the running backs as a group have the chance to be a major topic of conversation as standouts for the Irish after the loss of several attention-grabbing players on defense.

Notre Dame has thrived on defense over the past few seasons. By keeping the score close, the Irish offense did not have to be overpowering, but the days of the anemic offense might be over.

The offense needs to do a better job keeping the defense off the field, especially since the defense has a lot of development left to do. A secure rushing game can make that happen.

The success or failure of the 2014 season could very well hinge on Notre Dame’s ability to rush effectively.

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