Irish fans, let's talk running backs. When Everett Golson was presumed to be the man at quarterback for the 2015 Irish, there was a fair chance the running backs were going to be, if not unimportant, certainly not the most vital cog in the offensive machine. However, with Golson gone and Malik Zaire slated to be the man under center, the running game is likely to take on greater importance as coach Brian Kelly gets Zaire more comfortable with his spot and presumably takes advantage of the junior's run-first skill set.
Heading into the season, the obvious leader of the running back brigade is junior Tarean Folston, and for good reason. The man can run with a football.
Folston only went over 20 carries once last season, thanks partly to a throw-first ND offense and partly to sharing the load with now-junior Greg Bryant and graduated Cam McDaniel. However, he still ran for nearly 900 total yards and averaged five yards a tote. Add in his nearly 200 yards receiving (10.9 yards a catch, too) and Folston cranked out 1,079 yards of total offense. Not a bad year.
The question, if there is one, isn't whether Folston is the most effective choice for ND at running back. He likely is, although Bryant certainly showed flashes in his own right a year ago, also averaging over five yards a carry in less-frequent work. The question is whether we will see Folston take on a workhorse role or whether Kelly will stick with a committee.
Based on the numbers in the Kelly era, the latter seems more likely.
Top 2 rushers, by carries, for ND in Brian Kelly era:
2010: Cierre Wood (119 car, 603 yds), Armando Allen (107 car, 514 yds)
2011: Cierre Wood (217 car, 1,102 yds), Jonas Gray (114 car, 791 yds)
2012: Theo Riddick (190 car, 917 yds), Cierre Wood (114 car, 742 yds)
2013: Cam McDaniel (152 car, 705 yds), George Atkinson (93 car, 555 yds)
2014: Folston (175 car, 889 yds), Everett Golson (114 car, 283 yds)
What stands out is that only once in the last five years did an ND running back accrue 200 carries (and even that year, Wood's usage declined sharply after the first five games, in which he had four 20+ carry outings, thanks to the emergence of Gray). Clearly, Kelly would prefer he has at least two good running backs and is able to unleash them both rather than rely on one guy, a smart play in today's running back climate.
Luckily, in Bryant, he's got the makings of a second. Bryant has loads of talent, though at times last year it appeared he was working too hard to try to make a huge run rather than take the six or seven yards that he could get. He had his best game long after most Irish fans had waved the white flag against USC, where he racked up 79 yards on only seven carries.
The junior hasn't fully tapped the immense potential he clearly has (he was one of the most sought-after running backs in the country when he signed with ND), but the USC game, combined with the punt return he had against Louisville (below), offered hope that the light bulb was starting to click. He didn't see much of the ball in the bowl game, with only two carries, which was hopefully a fluke.
As a Bryant insurance policy, the coaches moved C.J. Prosise from his wide receiver spot to running back, an interesting move and probably a welcome one for those of us that are still haunted by a few drops Prosise had last year. We got a preview of how this move might play out when CJ scored an impressive TD against LSU in the bowl game on a fly sweep.
At worst, Prosise should be able to be an occasional big-play threat as the third running back, a la Atkinson. At best, Prosise could end up challenging Bryant for the #2 job. (Although if we're talking best-case scenarios, hopefully Bryant improves significantly and Prosise is good too, establishing a clear pecking order of super-dangerous backs.)
As we head into 2015, we can probably guess that ND will #RunTheDamnBallKelly, by necessity. However, if things play out as Irish fans hope, maybe we'll be lucky enough as fans to see the Irish #RunTheDamnBallKelly because it becomes clearly the best option for the blue and gold.