Notre Dame’s upcoming spring practice may be more important to running back George Atkinson III than any other player on the Fighting Irish roster. With 2012 leading-rusher Theo Riddick having graduated and second-leading rusher Cierre Wood opting to bypass his senior year for the NFL, all eyes will be on Atkinson come March and April.
Last season Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly loved the versatility he had with the three-headed monster the Irish featured in their backfield. Riddick, Wood and Atkinson combined for 14 rushing touchdowns and 82 percent of Notre Dame’s entire rushing yardage.
Kelly will again have plenty of talent at the running back position to choose from and if he so chooses can feature three backs, but unlike last season, he won’t have the luxury of putting a trio of experienced players on the field to carry the ball.
Atkinson is the veteran of the group.
In 2012, he started three games and played in 12 of 13. When he got a chance to carry the ball, Atkinson was productive, averaging a whooping 7.1 yards per carry as he finished with 361 yards and five touchdowns.
After No. 4, Kelly may turn to USC transfer Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel, Will Mahone, and five-star recruit Greg Bryant and highly touted signee Tarean Folston. All have the talent and speed you’re looking for from the running back position.
Regardless of who Kelly counts on most, Atkinson and Co. will have a lot to live up to.
Wood finished his career as the school’s seventh all-time leading rusher (2,447 yards). No running back in Notre Dame history with as many career rushes as Wood has a better yards per rush average as his 5.4 yards per carry average.
Riddick came close to a 1,000-yard rushing season last fall (917) with a handful of TDs on the ground. Where he’ll be missed most perhaps though is in the passing game, where he was a viable option coming out of the backfield. He had more receiving yards than rushing in his Irish career (1,263 to 1,169).
Atkinson may be better suited to fill the void left by Riddick in the passing game than any of his counterparts. Plus, he’s one of the fastest players on the Notre Dame roster so that has to count for something.
With a younger backfield than a year ago, Kelly may go with the approach of running back by committee for a period of time. You know he doesn’t want to rely on just one back to see the bulk of the carries. With that said, it will be interesting to see how much confidence he has in the others besides Atkinson. Kelly knows what he’ll get from the Stockton, Calif., native whereas the other options are talented but pretty much unproven, which to say the least can be unsettling for a coach.
Doug Griffiths is a member of the FWAA and the USBWA. Doug is a columnist/writer for RantSports. Follow him on Twitter @ISLgriffiths and Facebook.