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Unselfish trio of running backs has Notre Dame football soaring

Stanford v Notre Dame

Stanford v Notre Dame

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Updated: November 20, 2012 11:15AM



SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Every now and then, Cierre Wood casually will 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 graciously will 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 at the house for one of his frequent visits, Wood and Riddick will come together to make sure he 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, the Irish backfield situation could have been a source of great friction, with jealousy and discontentment torpedoing a relatively fragile offense.

The shifty Wood (279 yards) is 16 yards shy of 2,000 for his career. The powerful Riddick (308 yards) is a dual threat out of the backfield, having caught 78 passes in the previous two seasons. And the hyper-speedy Atkinson (290 yards) 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 victories against Michigan State and Miami, Riddick chewed up the clock against Michigan and the two combined to ignite the Irish offense late against Stanford. Both are glad their coaches trust them to have the ball in crunch time.

That said . . .

‘‘I want it, period,’’ Wood said.

Considering it’s coach Brian Kelly’s stated goal to put the ball
in Atkinson’s hands more often, given that he’s averaging more than nine yards per touch, it’s unlikely anyone will emerge as a 25-touches-a-game back.

The trick for ‘‘RB3,’’ as quarterback Everett Golson referred to them, is getting into a rhythm with so few touches. There has been a lot of talk about backup quarterback Tommy Rees coming in cold off the bench. But with no set rotation and no advance warning — ‘‘It’s literally just, ‘Go!’ ’’ Atkinson said — the tailbacks 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 the featured
back. But they also understand the reality of the situation and have adjusted their expectations
accordingly.

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 victories. They want to see everyone do well, whatever the impact on the depth chart is.

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.’’



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