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Pre-Spring Depth Chart: Running Back

Our stroll through the Notre Dame pre-spring depth chart continues as we take a look at the running backs for the upcoming 2011 season.

If you’ve missed any of the previous installments on a position group, simply click on the links below.

Wide receiver

Offensive line

*Denotes fifth year eligibility

Jonas Gray, Senior

Cierre Wood, Junior*

Cameron Roberson, Sophomore*

Cam McDaniel, Freshman

Is the Depth Dangerously Thin?

I wouldn’t say it is dangerously thin because that would mean switching "you know who" back to running back, but it is certainly an uncomfortable depth chart.

Four running backs should be enough to get through this season, but the team is flirting with disaster if there are any long-term injuries. Then again, the Irish rolled with four running backs last year, dealt with a season-ending injury to starter Armando Allen, a five game injury to Jonas Gray, and still made it through in decent shape.

What probably bothers people more is the lack of experience, which when combined with possible injuries, could lead to some seriously jittery players carrying the ball or even starting next season.

If there is an injury to Cierre Wood, could Cameron Roberson come in and carry the ball 10 times a game if need be and still be effective? Wood was able to do this in 2010 and even take over starting, but it’s a tough thing to ask for a young runner and not something you want to get in the habit of doing every year.

Now, if there is a long-term injury (particularly to either Gray and/or Wood), then I could see Theo Riddick moving back to running back. However, in order for that to happen there has to be a long-term injury to the starting running back, and a receiver has to prove they can start and fill Riddick’s shoes in the slot, or TJ Jones’ position on the outside if he moves into the middle.

All things being equal, Notre Dame should be fine with four running backs, but you can bet Brian Kelly and his staff want to bring in a couple new recruits for 2012.

Someone like Keith Marshall perhaps?

Any Chance There’s a 1,000 Yard Rusher in 2011?

Another way of phrasing this is, "How often will the Irish run the ball and who will get the bulk of the carries?"

In Kelly’s first season at Notre Dame the running backs averaged 22.4 rushes per game during the regular season. Note that this number does not include attempts by the quarterback or any other non-running back.

It’s probably safe to assume that this average will stay the same, and if so, it is unlikely that we will see a 1,000 rusher in 2011. For the record, I don’t put much credence in a 1,000 yard season anyway.

If Cierre Wood averages 15 carries a game and only increases his yards-per-carry output by 0.1 yards, he’ll just crack the 1,000 mark. He did average 15.2 carries per game over the last 5 games of the season, so this could be a possibility.

But in reality, it will all come down to many other factors such as if the starter can stay healthy, how many carries the backups get, how many blowouts the team plays, who is playing quarterback, etc.

Now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone like Wood to get 15 carries a game and break 1,000 yards, but with the depth chart the way it is, I think spreading the wealth, developing less experienced players, and giving carries to an up and comer like Cam Roberson is a good idea…as long as the team is winning.

Let’s put the odds of a 1,000 yard rusher at about 45 percent. There’s a decent shot but still unlikely at this point. Everyone seems to want Brian Kelly to run the ball more, but until we see a concerted effort to do so, having a 1,000 yard back in this offense will always be rare.

Who Needs to Step Up?

Seeing as how he will be a senior and a likely member of the two-deep with one last chance to make big things happen on the field, Jonas Gray is an obvious choice.

But I will say that Cameron Roberson needs to step up and ease the fan bases’ worries about the depth and future at the running back position.

Obviously Roberson hasn’t stepped on to the field yet, but Kelly’s praise for him last year during signing day and his 2010 Scout Team Offensive Player of the Year award bode well for his future.

Roberson has good size and the benefit of a year in Paul Longo’s strength and conditioning program, so he should be ready to make an impact as a sophomore and challenge for backup carries with Jonas Gray.

I think a Cierre Wood-type of sophomore season might be asking a bit too much about of Roberson (particularly if there are no injuries to the other runners), but it would be nice if the program is heading into 2012 knowing that Roberson can be a legitimate threat.

And that’s exactly why Roberson needs to step up.

Once Jonas Gray graduates, Roberson will be a likely member of the two-deep and someone who might have to be a starter if there’s an injury to Cierre Wood. I think everyone would love to see Gray break out as a senior and help this team win, but a big part of the future at running back depends upon the development of Roberson.

What’s the Lineup Going to Look Like?

Barring some unforeseen catastrophe or super-human rise by a couple of the youngsters, Cierre Wood will be the starter next year and be relied upon heavily to carry the running game.

How the carries are split up after Wood is anybody’s guess.

You could say that most of the Irish fan base is pretty lukewarm about Jonas Gray and isn’t expecting much from him, but I think he can have a big year and would have surprised a lot of people last year had he not suffered an injury.

Gray is a big back who might be used in more short yardage situations, but he also has really quick feet and has the speed to be a legitimate number one type of runner. If he can stay healthy, he should remain the backup and receive the second most carries.

Some will want to compare Gray to Robert Hughes because of their size, but Gray is much more fleet of foot and has excellent agility and quickness for a 230 pound back. Of course you could have said the same thing about Hughes, but he was always a power/down hill/fullback type of runner, whereas Gray has more of an NFL pedigree of size and speed.

At the same time, you probably shouldn’t be surprised if Cam Roberson ends up stealing carries away from Gray and making a name for himself as a sophomore.

Every year there seems to be a senior that has somewhat underachieved and the fans will be looking for a breakout performance their last season on campus. We could go ahead and call it the "Maurice Stovall" award. Duval Kamara was that guy last year and Jonas Gray could be the man in 2011.

Still, Gray’s amount of carries and experience aren’t overwhelming enough (75 rushing attempts through three years) to the point where Roberson won’t be able to make a run for serious playing time.

We’ll have to see how spring practice plays out to get a better read on the situation, but I would bet on a fierce battle for the backup position at running back all the way into the fall and even during the regular season.

With only three running backs ahead of him in terms of age, you have to think that Cam McDaniel is going to see the field in 2011.

It might take a while for McDaniel to get adjusted to the college game, but mid-season I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s getting three or four carries a game. He’ll also be an instant competitor at punt and kick returner and likely on special teams as well.

To sum it up, I think McDaniel has a good shot to make a huge impression as a true freshman. He might not be getting a ton of carries out of the backfield but the more you research and learn about McDaniel, the more you realize that this kid is a player and is going to make some noise early and often.

No matter what happens, this is Cierre Wood’s time to shine.

I’m on the record as being a huge Wood fan and I think his potential is sky-high. He still has some things to improve upon, but I firmly believe he is a talent that Notre Dame has been longing for in the backfield for years.

He needs to run down hill a little better and not always try to bounce outside, but the way his game improved as the year progressed was really nice to see and a great sign for the future. By year’s end he had improved immensely in blocking and turned himself into a quality number one running back at the college level.

At 210 pounds Wood has the size to run between the tackles and lower his head (we saw glimpses of this power, although we’d like to see more) and his open field running and juking ability is probably better than any Irish running back in a decade or more.

Whether 2011 will be the season that Wood "breaks out" and becomes a national star I cannot say, but I would bet that by the time his career is over he will be one of the best in the country at his position.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the running game will live and die by Wood next season, but it’s pretty clear he’s going to be a large part of the ground game, as well as the offense as a whole.

In conclusion, Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray should carry the load, Cameron Roberson should compete for a decent amount of carries and Cam McDaniel will be sprinkled in for good measure.

Roberson will be the guy to watch in spring ball though, so keep an eye on him.

Your thoughts?