The running game is the magic elixir for all that ails a football program. With strong-legged ball carriers who are fleet-of-foot, sure-of-hand, who run north and south and downhill, an offense is guaranteed a cloud of dust and four yards. Running the ball strips the game to its pure essence and credits the strong, the smart, the well-rehearsed.
While football, and the running game in particular, is by no means as simple as that, a solid running attack is a necessary element to any offense, if only to keep a defense honest. For Notre Dame, the coming season is one where Coach Kelly needs to move from credible to solid, if the Irish are to compete with Florida State and USC.
IRISH PLAYER TO WATCH: Cam McDaniel, RB, Senior, 5’10″, 207 lbs.
Senior Cam McDaniel became, literally, the face of Notre Dame last season. This season, he will be one of three faces in a running attack that may just be building to the solidity offensive coordinators crave. Alongside sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, McDaniel will need to improve upon a 2013 campaign that saw him carry 152 times for 704 yards.
Clearly, Folston and Bryant are the faces of the future. Bryant, a powerful, punishing back, Folston, a more fluid, elegant runner, deadly in space. If both young men develop the way they can, and Bryant’s 51 yard carry in the Blue Gold game was but a teaser of his potential, I would not be surprised at all if McDaniel’s carries decline as we head into late October, given the upside to both Folston and Bryant. Still, if the Irish want to be more 2012 than 2013, they will need the consistency and experience that McDaniel brings, at least to get them through the first quarter of a very tough schedule.
ENEMY PLAYER TO WATCH: DJ Foster, RB, Arizona State, 5’11”, 200+ lbs.
D.J. Foster is a dual threat who can kill you with his hands, as readily as with his feet. Named to both the Paul Hornung and Maxwell Award watch lists, Foster put up 523 yards on 93 rushing attempts last season and 653 yards on 63 catches for four touchdowns. Against the Irish, he caught nine passes, a career high, for 71 yards. Last season, D.J. split his time in the backfield with Marion Grice, who was drafted in the sixth round by the San Diego Chargers, so you can expect to see his numbers rise, if only due to the fact that he’ll be seeing more of the ball.
Foster appears to be bulking up a little, as his weight is being reported between 208 and 205 pounds. This should allow him to absorb more punishment, if anything, as he assumes the role of number one running back on the Sun Devil roster.
As the game of football evolves and coordinators seek an advantage, sure-handed backs will figure more and more prominently. Their ability to get open in space plays havoc with the primary defenders and keeps at least one back watching the line and not the streaking receivers now behind him. D.J. Foster will be one of most singularly threatening players the Irish need to neutralize in 2014.
(Author’s note: thanks for pointing out my Pinstripe Bowl error.)