During the offseason and through spring practice there has been a lot of talk surrounding Notre Dame's running game and what we could possibly see this upcoming season.
With Cierre Wood back as starter, Theo Riddick poised for a strong senior season, and other playmakers such as George Atkinson and Davonte Neal likely to carry the ball in 2012, Irish fans are anxious to see how well the team can move the ball on the ground.
However, what about Notre Dame's opponents---what are their running games shaping up to look like?
Let's take a break from looking at the Irish and instead focus on these opponents as they will be coming up against possibly the best front-7 under the Golden Dome in the post-Holtz era.
More after the jump.
First, let's see how the 2012 opponents fared on the ground last year.
Rushing Yards (2011)
Michigan State- 1,931
Boston College- 1,571
Wake Forest- 1,490
We always expect Navy to be at the top of this list because all they do is run the ball. Michigan only ran for just over 200 less yards in the first year of Hokemania versus the run-heavy Rich Rod offense---which is pretty impressive seeing as though the Wolverines didn't have a top running back step up until half way through the season.
Stanford is right about where they were for rushing yards during the entire Andrew Luck era. We'll see how easy it is to get this kind of production without a once-in-a-generation quarterback under center.
Are you surprised to see Purdue so high on this list?
I know I am.
They actually ran the ball a ton last year and cleaned up on the ground against weaker opponents (1,334 yards against MTSU, Rice, Southeast Missouri State, Indiana, and Western Michigan) putting up Wake Forest's entire season in just 5 games.
If you recall, the Boilermakers were in the top 10 nationally in rushing when they faced off against Notre Dame last year. They promptly gained just 84 yards on 27 carries against the Irish.
Oklahoma is right about where they should be, and they are definitely trending upwards (more on this below) from their 2009-10 seasons where they didn't notch 2,000 yards in either year.
It's not surprising to see Boston College near the bottom as they lost Montel Harris to injury (again) and generally had a anemic offense the entire season. Less surprising is Wake Forest---and things do not look pretty for 2012.
The two teams that jump out are Michigan State and Miami---both pro-style offenses that really struggled to run the ball last season. Will they improve in 2012?
Rushing Average (2011)
Michigan State- 3.95
Boston College- 3.59
Wake Forest- 3.21
Mostly a mirror image from above with a few smaller changes.
Again, Wake Forest was pretty bad running the ball last year. Miami and USC both moved up three spots each versus yards gained signalling a pretty decent ground game overall that wasn't used as much. BYU and Purdue both fell two spots, while Pitt fell three spots.
I know it was year one (and the only one) of Todd Graham and Ray Graham was injured for part of the season, but that is a really poor rushing season for Panther standards. It should be intriguing to see how new head coach Paul Chryst re-establishes that power running game Pitt is so known for.
Top Individual Runners Returning for 2012
Le'Veon Bell- Michigan State
Bell burst on to the scene as a freshman in 2010 and followed that up ending the 2011 season as the primary back for the Spartans---leapfrogging Edwin Baker who thought it was a great idea to jump early to the NFL after a very poor season individually.
Bell rushed for a team-leading 948 yards at 5.21 per carry, and added 13 touchdowns on the ground as well.
Michigan State has to replace a lot of playmakers on offense next year, so Bell will be leaned on heavily for this upcoming season.
Fitzgerald Toussaint- Michigan
Denard Robinson would certainly qualify as well, but we'll stick to running backs. It's pretty scary that Shoelaces has been so effective as a runner without being paired with a bonafide No. 1 running back for most of his career. By the middle of last year, Toussaint was proving that he can be that top guy and many expect a major breakout season for the Wolverine back.
He led all Michigan running backs with 1,041 yards at 5.57 a pop with 9 touchdowns.
The Wolverines have some holes to fill at wideout and on the offensive line, but you can expect to see a lot of No. 28 in 2012.
Stepfan Taylor- Stanford
We'll see how good Taylor is without Luck under center, but there's no denying the quarterback was a huge part of Stanford's success in every aspect of offense. Remember Toby Gerhart gaining 735 more yards and 13 more touchdowns during Luck's first season at quarterback?
Nevertheless, Taylor is coming off back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons and rushed for 1,330 yards last season at 5.5 per rush added to 10 touchdowns.
He'll be the primary target in the 2012 Luck-less offense.
Ray Graham- Pittsburgh
Graham effectively missed the last 6 games of the season in 2011, but he's returning to Pitt for his senior season and is one of the most experienced running backs in the country. For his career he has 2,229 yards and 21 touchdowns---and that's with only about half a year as the Panthers primary back.
Last year before he went down with an injury, Graham had racked up 958 yards at 5.8 per rush with 9 touchdowns.
Any time you can bring back someone who was on pace for almost 2,000 yards on the ground, you have to be excited if you're Pitt---and worried if you're Notre Dame.
Curtis McNeal- USC
McNeal redshirted as a freshman, played very sparingly in 2009 and was academically ineligible in 2010. Coming in to last season, he was buried on the USC depth chart but emerged late in the season as the starter for the Trojans.
McNeal's numbers were quietly some of the best in the country last year as he rumbled for 1,005 yards at an impressive 6.9 yards per carry (the same as Jonas Gray). He also added 6 rushing scores.
USC doesn't have much depth behind McNeal heading in to this season, but that means he'll be fed the ball a ton.
Top Incoming Freshmen Running Backs
Dennis Norfleet- Michigan
4-star, No. 5 all-purpose back, No. 6 Michigan, No. 236 nationally (Rivals).
Tiny but super speedy back who may see some action in Michigan's backfield in 2012.
Randy Johnson- Miami
5-star, No. 1 all-purpose back, No. 6 Florida, No. 30 nationally
Mega-recruit who should get an ample opportunity to play a lot as a freshman. Shouldn't surprise if he's at least a backup getting 5 to 10 carries a game.
Barry Sanders, Jr.- Stanford
4-star, No. 9 running back, No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 134 nationally
Stanford has good depth at running back for 2012, but Sanders is likely as talented as anyone on the Cardinal roster right now. He may be someone who shoots up the depth chart and sees some action as a freshman.
Alex Ross- Oklahoma
4-star, No. 12 running back, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 144 nationally
The Sooners are loaded at running back, so it's more likely that Ross redshirts in 2012 and starts to make an impact when Oklahoma travels to South Bend in 2013. Still, he was one of the top backs in the country from this last class so keep an eye out for him.
Damien Williams- Oklahoma
Williams was originally set to sign with Arizona State, but those plans changed when Dennis Erickson was fired in Tempe a few months ago. He then bolted to Norman after being wooed by Oklahoma and many expect him to see the field in 2012 coming off a year of seasoning in junior college.
Rushel Shell- Pittsburgh
4-star, No. 6 running back, No. 2 Pennsylvania, No. 55 nationally
A lot of Irish fans wanted Shell at Notre Dame, but he decided to stay with his hometown team after Todd Graham was fired. And why not? The running game should be stressed much more under Paul Chryst anyway.
The Bottom-Half Rushing Attacks for 2012
The Boilermakers should feel pretty good about their run game in 2012. They only have to replace their left guard and right tackle, plus the top four leading rushers (Ralph Bolden, Akeem Shavers, Akeem Hunt, plus quarterback Caleb TerBush) all return.
If they can get some consistency out of the quarterback position, this might be a surprise ground attack in the Big Ten next year.
This may be the season that the Cardinal fall back down to earth, not just with the running game, but with the offense as a whole. That's not a bold prediction in the least bit.
Stanford has to replace Andrew Luck, two first-round picks on the offensive line, and they will be without their top three pass catchers---including tight end Coby Fleener who led the team in touchdown receptions and ran a 4.45 40-yard dash during his Pro Day. That's the same time as Michael Floyd but with 3 more inches and nearly 30 more pounds.
If you're scoring at home, that's likely 4 picks in the 1st round for Stanford. The Cardinal have recruited well in recent years, but Miami circa the turn of the century they are not.
Stanford will likely still pound the ball a lot, but a drop off into the 4.5 YPC range seems more likely than the team staying a full yard per carry higher and over 2,500 yards total on the season.
The Cougars are an interesting case because they like to spread the ball around (5 players with at least 80 carries in 2011) but they are also losing their top rusher from 2011 as well as their fourth best (who led the team in touchdowns by the way), and have to replace their center and left tackle.
When you add that to the fact that BYU struggled mightily to run the ball against its best competition last year (1.87 YPC vs. Texas, 0.50 vs. Utah, 2.78 vs. TCU) they aren't exactly striking fear into opponents for the upcoming season.
10. Boston College
The good news is that Boston College only has to replace their center and brings back literally their entire offense, including their top three rushers from 2011. The bad news is that the Eagles offense hasn't proven to be particularly talented in recent years, and Montel Harris has missed spring practice after being injured most of last year.
In fact, Harris was the last BC running back to average at least 5.0 YPC in a season with at least 100 carries, and that goes all the way back to 2008. Like most offenses, the Eagles will have to find competent quarterback play and enough balance on offense to open things up for their running game.
There's some decent talent there with Finch, Williams, Kimble, and especially if Harris can come back healthy---but this ground game has a lot more to prove before it gets ranked any higher. Boston College hasn't topped 100 rushing yards in a game against Notre Dame since 2008, and has just 155 yards combined over the last three meetings with the Irish.
How can Navy be this low when they topped 2011 in both yardage and yards per carry? Well, we know the triple option is designed to get yards in bunches, Navy typically plays a pretty weak schedule, and the Middies are losing a lot of production for 2012.
They need a new starter at left tackle, center, and right guard. They are losing 5 of their top 8 rushers (including their two biggest weapons in quarterback Kriss Proctor and fullback Alex Teich). A couple weapons remain in Gee Gee Greene and John Howell, but this might be a major struggle of a season for the Navy run game when it comes up against its top opponents, including Notre Dame.
12. Wake Forest
It's pretty simple: Wake Forest was at the bottom of the rushing categories in 2011 and next season they must replace 4 offensive linemen in addition to replacing their top rusher (Pendergrass) and their top receiver (Givens) declared early for the NFL Draft.
The Demon Deacons played Notre Dame tough last year, but they are likely to take a step back next season on offense and on the ground.
The Top-Half Rushing Attacks for 2012
Miami wasn't particularly great at running the ball last year and they do lose Lamar Miller who quietly had one of stronger seasons from an underclassman in the country. What's more, they have questions at quarterback and their receiving corps loses their top two targets.
Still, three offensive linemen return and you can bet that Al Golden is going to improve this aspect of the offense in his second season at Miami. Mike James has shown flashes as a top running back, there's a couple younger backs looking to make their move next season, plus an elite freshman in Randy Johnson could boost their ground attack.
5. Michigan State
The Spartans have problems on offense heading into 2012, but not really with their ground game. They have to replace their quarterback and literally every player who caught a pass last year, but 3 of their top 4 rushers return (and remember Baker did not play well last year) and the entire offensive line---which fought through a ton of injuries last year---all return.
The running game might stall next season without quality QB play and receivers who can step up in the passing game, but Michigan State is poised to really lean on Le'Veon Bell who could have a big season.
Of all the teams that would suffer a transition to a Todd Graham spread offense, Pitt would be near the top of the list. That the Panthers struggled so much running the ball last year isn't a indictment on their talent as much as it was the coaching staff not having the right parts to execute their offense.
Now with a pro-style offense back in the Steel City, the Panthers should be strong on the ground again. They do have to replace three offensive linemen from last season, but then again those players were probably so messed up from the coaching transition that the team may be better off with some new blood up front.
The backup runner in Zach Brown is gone, but Ray Graham could be poised for a big-time senior season. Add in super-recruit Rushel Shell, Paul Chryst's success as an offensive coordinator, and you'll likely get a very good rushing attack.
It's true the Trojans don't have very good depth at running back (
they just moved linebacker Tre Madden to the position this spring he injured his knee and is out for the season) but they have a fantastic go-to number one back in Curtis McNeal and of course an offense under Matt Barkely that will keep defenses off-balance for four quarters.
They still might not run the ball that much like last year (and why would you when you have Barkley-Woods-Lee?) but when they do they should be very effective. What's more, USC only has to replace their left tackle while the rest of a pretty good offensive line returns.
There are some signs that Michigan's offense could take a step back in 2012---they lose two really good offensive linemen and the receiving corps is, shall we say, not scary at the moment---but any team that has Denard Robinson and its top three rushers coming back has to be considered a potent ground attack.
Many thought (or hoped) that the Wolverines would get away from having Denard Robinson run the ball so much under Hoke's leadership, but he still ran the ball a ton. I'd look for Hoke to say, "Ahh, screw it" and ride Shoelaces for his final season.
With Fitzgerald Toussaint emerging as a top running back, that could mean yet another 1,000 yard tandem in Ann Arbor.
You could argue putting Michigan at number one here, but they are one Robinson injury away from plummeting down the rankings. The Sooners may not offer that once-in-a-generation talent that Michigan does, but their depth is literally an embarrassment of riches.
Four offensive linemen return, as does talented and experienced quarterback Landry Jones. Balance shouldn't be a problem as Kenny Stills returns at wide receiver and Oklahoma hauled in one of the best recruiting classes at wideout in recent memory.
On top of that, the top four rushers on the team return---the top two (Dominique Whaley & Roy Finch who both averaged over 5.0 yards a carry)---two impact freshmen arrive this offseason, and just for good measure quarterback Blake Bell is also back as the goal line battering ram (led the team in 2011 with 13 touchdowns).
Oklahoma should be scary good running the ball in 2012.