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Let's Talk About Notre Dame's Best Modern Running Backs

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18 years of tailbacks and we sort them all out.

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Let's talk about the best running backs to come through Notre Dame since 1997. There were some lean years and some respectable years. I'm here to sort it all out.

In order to qualify the player had to accumulate 100 carries over his career, and we're only considering their play from the backfield and not any special teams work. Let's rank 'em.

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17. Travis Thomas (2004-07)

409 rush yards, 128 carries, 3.19 average, 12 rush TD, 6 catches, 38 receiving yards

Ah, the good ole days of the Charlie Weis running game. Thomas never rose to the starting job and spent the better part of his last 3 seasons in South Bend being an average short-yardage back, particularly in the red zone. He actually switched to linebacker in 2006 (we counted his rushing stats that year anyway) and still got some carries as the Irish marched to the Sugar Bowl.

His 5 touchdowns in 2007 on just 27 carries is pretty impressive considering the team only scored 11 rushing touchdowns on the entire season. Then again, as noted above he was usually inserted near the goal-line and only totaled 58 yards on those 27 carries.

16. Rashon Powers-Neal (2002-05)

476 rush yards, 125 carries, 3.80 average, 8 rush TD, 27 catches, 216 receiving yards, 2 receiving TD

Started out on defense during his redshirt year but switched to running back for 2002 where he put up the bulk (77 carries) of his career touches. After that, Powers-Neal flip flopped between tailback and fullback before settling in at the latter position to finish his career.

He was actually a solid fullback and scored 6 touchdowns as a senior with 90 receiving yards.

15. James Aldridge (2006-09)

979 rush yards, 255 carries, 3.83 average, 3 rush TD, 8 catches, 31 receiving yards

Aldridge

Dilip Vishwanat, Getty Images

Aldridge started a few games over his career but was one of the biggest flops in recent Irish history after garnering 5-star status out of high school. A knee injury forced him to miss the beginning of 2006 but for his part he came back strong playing towards the end of the year and being, all things considered, one of the bright spots on the 2007 offense.

However, he never could beat out a couple other players and ended up finishing his senior season at fullback where he carried the ball just 6 times.

14. Terrance Howard (1999-2001)

684 rush yards, 141 carries, 4.85 average, 8 rush TD, 11 catches, 108 receiving yards

Howard was a nice backup option during the late Bob Davie years but never established himself beyond that. He did average 5.6 and 5.7 yards-per-carry in his first two seasons but took a significant step back as a senior with 160 yards on 48 carries.

13. George Atkinson III (2011-13)

943 rush yards, 153 carries, 6.16 average, 10 rush TD, 10 catches, 65 receiving yards

Atkinson's YPC is actually the highest out of any of the running backs listed here which points to his amazing explosiveness and speed. If we were ranking those attributes he'd be tough to beat.

Unfortunately, GA3 only made 4 starts and spent the majority of his career as the third option within the offense. He probably would have been a spot or two higher if he added more in the pass game.

12. Cam McDaniel (2011-14)

1,121 rush yards, 255 carries, 4.39 average, 8 rush TD, 17 catches, 151 receiving yards

McDaniel gets the nod over Atkinson due to his consistency and the fact that he was the co-starter at running back for the better part of his last two seasons.

His production was solid but not really worthy of a higher slot on the list.

11. Robert Hughes (2007-10)

1,392 rush yards, 321 carries, 4.33 average, 15 rush TD, 43 catches, 370 receiving yards

Getting at least 50 carries in 4 straight seasons is very admirable, and although he never could become the go-to starter, he added some versatility as a pass catcher which earned him bonus points.

Hughes' 15 rushing touchdowns points to his short-yardage ability and that finished tied for 6th among all running backs.

10. Tarean Folston (2013-14)

1,359 rush yards, 263 carries, 5.16 average, 9 rush TD, 23 catches, 225 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD

It's fun to think about where Folston will end up on this list when his career is over. With another season similar to his sophomore campaign he'll be knocking on the door to the top 5 and if he stays for his senior season he could make the case to move up even higher.

Folston likely won't get enough reps to challenge the all-time school rushing mark (he'll need to average nearly 1,500 yards over the next 2 seasons) but if he stays for 2016 he'd be a 3.5 year starter and very likely over 3,000 career rushing yards.

9. Theo Riddick (2009-12)

1,077 rush yards, 190 carries, 4.91 average, 5 rush TD, 42 catches, 413 receiving yards, 2 receiving TD

Riddick's clutch play and grit from 2012 earn him this ranking. Overall, his resume isn't quite as good as several others on this list as he only really made his mark at running back as a senior.

Still, he finished 2012 as the top back and was a huge versatile weapon in the pass game for the best Irish team of the last 2 decades.

8. Ryan Grant (2001-04)

2,220 rush yards, 560 carries, 3.96 average, 18 rush TD, 26 catches, 137 receiving yards

Grant

Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images

Grant played minimally as a freshman then burst onto the scene in 2002 with a 1,085 yard season. Unfortunately, he never regained that sophomore form as he took a back seat to Julius Jones in 2003 and was passed up by freshman Darius Walker in 2004.

He fit in much better in the NFL as he totaled 3,412 yards in his first 3 seasons with the Packers but didn't have the shiftiness and change of direction skills needed to excel in the crappy unproductive Tyrone Willingham offenses. Still, 3 straight seasons of at least 100 carries is no joke but Grant's final 2 seasons in South Bend saw him average only 3.79 yards per carry.

7. Jonas Gray (2008-11)

1,100 rush yards, 189 carries, 5.82 average, 12 rush TD, 11 catches, 105 receiving yards

Yes, Gray only put up one quality season over his career but his senior season was a complete dandy. For a time, he was flirting with George Gipp's single season rushing average (8.1) before finishing at a still-awesome 6.9 YPC before a knee injury against Boston College ended his college career.

6. Tony Fisher (1998-2001)

1,849 rush yards, 384 carries, 4.81 average, 15 rush TD, 33 catches, 398 receiving yards, 5 receiving TD

A strong runner during the Bob Davie era who grabbed the starting role in 1999, then shared it in 2000 with Julius Jones, and eventually fell back to a backup role as a senior while battling injuries. Overall, his career kind of went backwards but he was usually productive and sneaky good as a pass catcher.

5. Armando Allen (2007-10)

2,144 rush yards, 469 carries, 4.57 average, 8 rush TD, 119 catches, 833 receiving yards, 3 receiving TD

The big knock on Allen was that he played a lot (4 straight years of 80+ carries with his last 3 years all over 100 carries each) but never ascended to the starting role for any great length of time. He does get some credit for being a trooper through the worst of the Charlie Weis years with mostly sub-par offensive line play and then not being able to finish his senior year due to injury after a strong start.

His abilities as one of the best pass catchers on this list gave him a nice boost.

4. Cierre Wood (2010-12)

2,447 rush yards, 450 carries, 5.43 average, 16 rush TD, 52 catches, 384 receiving yards, 2 receiving TD

Wood's career kind of ended on a sour note but for the most part he was one of the most productive Irish backs of the last 20 years. He put together 3 straight seasons of at least 100 carries, including a 200-carry season in 2011, and never fell below 5.1 yards-per-carry in any campaign.

Among all the backs on this list, Cierre finished 3rd in YPC, 3rd in total rushing, 5th in rushing scores, 3rd in receptions, and 5th in receiving yards. His 5.43 rushing average is the highest of anyone who at least shared the starting role for more than 1 season.

3. Julius Jones (1999-2001, 2003)

3,018 rush yards, 634 carries, 4.76 average, 26 rush TD, 28 catches, 250 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD

Julius

Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images

Jones was on his way to being rated fairly highly on this through his first 3 seasons but it was his last campaign, following a year-long suspension in 2002, that really solidified himself as one of the best.

His 1,268-yard 2003 season tied for the most rushing yards out of any qualifying Notre Dame back and it was by far with a better YPC on 35 fewer carries than his competitor. His total rushing yardage finished 2nd on the list.

2. Darius Walker (2004-06)

3,249 rush yards, 693 carries, 4.68 average, 23 rush TD, 109 catches, 816 receiving yards, 3 receiving TD

As a running back, Walker might not rate among the Top 10 but he was undeniably productive especially when his pass catching skills are thrown into the discussion.

His total rushing tops all running backs and he was one of only 2 players to put together back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. He just wasn't quite explosive enough to grab the top spot and had the benefit of playing his last 2 seasons as the primary back on the best offenses of this entire time frame.

1. Autry Denson (1997-98)

2,444 rush yards, 515 carries, 4.74 average, 27 rush TD, 36 catches, 256 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD

It wasn't fair that Denson's first 2 seasons didn't count on this list but it doesn't matter anyway. He still tops the list. The school's all-time leading rusher (and new RB coach this year) is a fairly easy pick for the No. 1 running back since 1997 due to his combination of production and consistency over his two qualifying seasons.

Even without his underclassman years Denson ranks 4th in total rushing, 1st in rushing scores, and his pass catching was in the top half, too. The only big knock on Denson was that he got less productive on a per-carry basis the further he moved from Lou Holtz' coaching. Still, he put together back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons (3 straight if we count 1996) and tied with Julius Jones for the most yards in a single season.