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August 27, 2012
If Cierre Wood had been suspended the first two games a year ago - just days before the season-opener against South Florida -- the Irish would have been in trouble.
Well, as it turned out, save for the unfortunate fumble in the opener against South Florida, the running back position would have been in pretty good hands with Jonas Gray as the lead back from the outset.
But imagine the panic, the angst over the lack of depth at the running back position under similar circumstances in 2011.
Of course, opening with South Florida and Michigan is different than beginning the 2012 campaign against Navy and Purdue. There would appear to be a bit more margin for error this season. Yet in year three of the Brian Kelly regime, no such panic is necessary.
Wood's two-game suspension takes away Notre Dame's first 1,000-yard rusher since Darius Walker in 2006. But the move of Theo Riddick from Z receiver to running back late in 2011, as well as the development of sophomore George Atkinson III, the promise of Amir Carlisle (although slowed by injury) and Will Mahone, and the return of sophomore Cam McDaniel to running back, is but one example of how Notre Dame's re-tooled offense shows an increase in balance, talent and depth.
The receiver positions are another example. Last season, Notre Dame's backups included John Goodman, Deion Walker, Luke Massa, Daniel Smith, and unproven freshmen Matthias Farley and DaVaris Daniels, neither of which established himself as a potential breakout player during his rookie season. Both preserved a year of eligibility.
This year, Goodman is bigger, stronger and in a much better position to contribute at the W while Smith and Daniels have indicated through practice reps that they are ready to jump into the rotation. Farley is making waves on defense. Massa is injured. Walker is gone. Freshmen Davonte Neal and Chris Brown in particular have shown they are ready to make an immediate contribution in '12. Veterans TJ Jones and Robby Toma both are in line for career years.
The loss of Alex Welch for the season to a knee injury is a blow to the tight end position. But Notre Dame lost Mike Ragone early last season to injury as well. Tyler Eifert is an established star, Ben Koyack is a year older with playing experience under his belt, and Troy Niklas - who converted from outside linebacker - is a physical freak with some Eifert-like skills. Even fourth-teamer Jake Golic may be able to contribute as a blocking tight end.
It would be difficult to say that the Irish offensive line is deeper than it was a year ago with the loss of starters Taylor Dever and Trevor Robinson on the right side of the line, plus the departure of versatile Andrew Nuss and youngster Brad Carrico. The pre-season injury to Tate Nichols and the departure of Jordan Prestwood have left the Irish a bit light on tackle depth.
Yet it looks like a capable starting unit with Christian Lombard, Mike Golic, Jr., Braxston Cave, Chris Watt and Zack Martin with another year in the system under the belts of sophomores Nick Martin, Connor Hanratty and Matt Hegarty. Freshman Ronnie Stanley may be called into duty sooner than the coaching staff would like. But at least he's shown a physical maturity that seems to exceed his class status.
Everett Golson won the starting quarterback job during the pre-season over junior Andrew Hendrix, who played in five games a year ago, with 16-game starter Tommy Rees available in week two. Brian Kelly would like to preserve a year of eligibility with top-rated freshman Gunner Kiel.
What the Irish lack in experience at the quarterback position compared to Dayne Crist a year ago, they compensate with experience in the back-up roles, not to mention the multiplicity of skills offered by Golson.
As it all relates to Wood, this delayed start to his senior season could ultimately benefit the 2013 team if he chooses -- and Notre Dame offers, under the circumstances of his suspension -- a fifth year of eligibility, which would be an unexpected boost to the position a year from now. Plus, there are plenty of carries to be had over the final 11 games of the season in 2012. No reason why this setback has to derail Wood's season.
Riddick and Atkinson will get a chance to establish themselves in the ground game against lesser competition in weeks one and two before Wood's return. Neal and Toma may even get a tote or two (from less conventional alignments) where they get reps on a daily basis in practice before moving over to the receiver position.
It's never a positive when a returning 1,000-yard rusher falls victim to a rules violation and jeopardizes the benefits of the hard work put in by 100 or so teammates. But it's clear in year three of the Kelly era that when adversity strikes the offense, the Irish are better positioned than they were during the first two years of the regime.