Notre Dame’s backfield brotherhood overcomes jealousy, discontent
By Mark Lazerus firstname.lastname@example.org October 17, 2012 8:07PM
Updated: October 17, 2012 10:30PM
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Every now and then, Cierre Wood will casually walk up to housemate Theo Riddick and offer him a gesture of brotherly love.
“Sometimes, he’ll be just sitting on the couch or something like that, and I’ll just come up and smack him in the face,” Wood said. “Just cause I feel like it.”
Every now and then, Riddick will graciously return the favor.
“He can talk too much,” Riddick said. “He doesn’t know how to shut his hole.”
And every now and then, when George Atkinson III is over the house for one of his frequent visits, Wood and Riddick will come together to make sure the sophomore feels right at home.
“I’m the little one, so I’m always getting picked on by both of them,” Atkinson said.
Just about every football player refers to his teammates as his brothers. But Notre Dame’s running backs aren’t just saying it. They’re living it. After all, this is what brothers do — torment each other, belittle each other, beat on each other.
“At the end of the day, it’s all love,” Wood said.
Good thing, too. Because if these guys didn’t get along so well that they can walk around whaling on each other with impunity, the Irish backfield situation could have been a source of great friction — the kind of jealousy and discontent that could torpedo a relatively fragile offense.
The shifty Wood is 16 yards shy of 2,000 for his career, the 16th-most prolific runner in Notre Dame history coming off the school’s 10th-best single-season rushing mark (1,186 yards). The powerful Riddick is a dual threat out of the backfield, having caught 78 passes over the previous two seasons. And the hyperspeedy Atkinson is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
Thing is, there’s only one ball to go around.
“You’ve got to remain patient,” Wood said. “We’re all in it together. It’s about us as a team. That’s where we’ve been getting all our success from, all our running backs have been fresh when they come in.”
Indeed, Wood and Riddick have been at their best in the fourth quarter — Wood salted away wins against Michigan State and Miami, Riddick chewed up the clock against Michigan, and both combined to ignite the Irish offense late against Stanford. Both players are glad their coaches trust them to have the ball in crunch time.
“I want it, period,” Wood said.
But Wood, after being suspended for the first two weeks of the season, has just 47 carries in four games, averaging 5.9 yards per run. Riddick has a team-high 80 carries. And while Atkinson has just 32 on the season, it’s coach Brian Kelly’s stated goal to put the ball in his hands more often, since he’s averaging more than 9 yards per touch. All three have between 279 (Wood) and 308 (Riddick) yards on the season, so it’s highly unlikely that anyone will emerge as a 25-touches-a-game back.
Wood had 18 carries or more seven times last year. He’s gotten to 18 just once this year — during the blowout of Miami, with the Irish in kill-the-clock mode.
The trick for “RB3”, as quarterback Everett Golson referred to them, is getting into a rhythm with so few touches. There’s been a lot of talk about backup quarterback Tommy Rees coming in cold off the bench to spark the Irish. But with no rhyme or reason to the rotation, and little to no advance warning — “It’s literally just, ‘Go!’,” Atkinson said — the running backs are in essentially the same situation.
“It’s a lot like that,” Atkinson said. “You’ve got to be ready. Doesn’t matter if you’re warm or not.”
All three backs have said they would love to be (and believe they’re good enough to be) the feature back. But they also understand the reality of the situation, and have recalibrated their expectations accordingly.
“Every time I get the ball, I just try to make something happen,” Wood said. “You can only do with what you get. So when I get my opportunity, I try to make the most of it.”
They’ve been saying all the right things since training camp: They’re in it for the team, not themselves. It doesn’t matter how many carries they get, only how many wins they get. They want to see everyone do well, no matter the impact on the depth chart.
Of course, it’s hardly unusual to hear football players say all the right things in this kind of situation.
But these guys insist they mean it. After all, they’re brothers — with the bruises and rug burns to prove it.
“You can’t have those kinds of problems within a football team, especially if everybody’s main focus is to win,” Wood said. “But all three of us are close, especially me and Theo. That makes it a lot easier.”