With our examinations of the Notre Dame defensive line, linebackers, secondary, offensive line , and receivers/tight ends now out of the way, we will move on today to take our final look at the Irish with our analysis of the running backs and quarterbacks.
The Irish Running Backs
Editor's Note: In order to make objective comparisons of different players and units for this series, we're going to be leaning heavily on NFL draft projections compiled by the folks at CBS Sports. Of course NFL talent, or at least projected NFL talent, doesn't necessarily equate to effectiveness at the college level, but we find that it is highly correlated, and can often be the best objective measure readily available for the individual ability of college players. Further, the CBS projections are by no means the only ones out there, nor are they necessarily the best, but they are quite comprehensive and include projections not just for this year's draft entries, but also for underclassmen as well, which helps tremendously for this endeavor.
Notre Dame has a very interesting weapon in starting running back Theo Riddick (#6). The senior has played most of his career as a wide receiver, though he often lined up in the backfield and took some occasional handoffs. This season, however, the Irish have used him primarily as a running back, though again part of what makes him so dangerous is that he can easily switch into the slot at the line of scrimmage and cause matchup problems for teams. He has been the leading ball-carrier for Notre Dame this season, leading the team with 180 carries for 880 yards and 5 touchdowns, an average of 4.9 yards per carry. He has also done a ton of damage as a pass-catcher, both out of the backfield and from the slot. He is third on the team in receptions with 35 on the year, and is fourth with 364 receiving yards. He also has a receiving touchdown. Riddick isn't just where he is because of his versatility, though. He may very well have NFL capability at the running back position, as he is rated as the 16th-best running back in this year's draft class and is projected to be selected in the 5th or 6th round. With his talent and versatility, Riddick will be a very dangerous player for Alabama's defense to have to deal with on Monday night.
Much like Alabama and most other teams these days, Notre Dame does not rely on just one running back. Fourth-year junior Cierre Wood (#20) receives close to 40% of the team's carries out of the backfield and is often considered a co-starter along with Riddick. In fact, Wood was the team's primary running back last season before Riddick switched over to running back and accumulated over 1,000 yards on the season. This year, with his workload reduced somewhat, he has 110 carries for 758 yards and 4 touchdowns, an average of 6.7 yards per carry. Though he doesn't receive quite the workload that Riddick does, Wood is certainly a starting-caliber running back, as evidenced by not only the numbers he put up last season, but also his draft grade. He's rated as the 8th-best running back in the junior class nation-wide, meaning that he's likely to be drafted somewhere in the middle rounds of next year's NFL Draft.
Although Riddick and Wood receive the bulk of the carries, a third running back usually sees action situationally, and has plenty of talent in his own right. Sophomore George Atkinson III (#4) has top-end speed excels in the open field. He has 51 carries for 361 yards and 5 touchdowns on the season, and leads the team with a 7.1 yards per carry average, an indication of his big-play ability. He's ranked as the 8th-best running back in the sophomore class. Atkinson is also the team's top kickoff returner, and though he hasn't broken any long returns this season, he did return two for touchdowns last year as a freshman, so he has that capability.
On a related note, we failed to mention Notre Dame's top punt returner in our earlier piece on the Notre Dame wide receivers. True freshman receiver Devonte Neal (#19) has returned every punt for Notre Dame so far this season, though he has only accumulated a grand total of 44 yards on the year.
Comparing Notre Dame's Running Backs to Alabama's
Much like with Alabama's wide receiver unit, this unit isn't quite as deep as it was at the start of the year, but it's still talented. The Tide lost junior Jalston Fowler to a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the season against Western Kentucky, depriving Alabama of its top short-yardage back and a versatile weapon who could line up at fullback or even tight end. The Tide then lost its fastest weapon at running back, redshirt freshman Dee Hart, to a knee injury in the fifth game of the year against Ole Miss. Combined, these injuries reduced Alabama's primary running back rotation from four players to just two. Fortunately for the Tide, those two players are two of the most talented running backs in all of college football.
Alabama's starter at running back of course is fourth-year junior Eddie Lacy (#42). Lacy leads the team with 184 carries for 1,182 yards and 16 touchdowns, an average of 6.4 yards per carry. Lacy also has 20 catches for 172 receiving yards and a touchdowns (although Lacy isn't a great pass-catcher, Alabama likes to run a lot of screens). Although he's been the backup to Trent Richardson for two years, Lacy is a top-end talent in his own right. He's ranked as the 2nd-best running back in this year's draft class and is projected to be selected in the 2nd round of this year's NFL Draft should he decide to forego his fifth year of eligibility.
While Lacy is obviously extremely talented, many believe, with good reason, that Alabama's other feature running back is even more talented. True freshman T.J. Yeldon (#4) has exploded onto the scene this season to work his way into a nearly even timeshare in the Alabama backfield along with Lacy despite being just a freshman. Like fellow freshman Amari Cooper, Yeldon was an elite recruit with high expectations, but few foresaw him having this kind of season for Alabama in his first year. He has 154 carries for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns, an average of 6.5 yards per carry. He also has 10 catches for 132 receiving yards and a (very dramatic, memorable) receiving touchdown. Yeldon is good enough to be drafted this year, and probably very early, but of course he isn't eligible for two more years. He's rated as the 2nd-best running back in the freshman class behind only Georgia's Todd Gurley, who may be the most NFL-ready running back in all of college football even as a freshman.
Although Alabama goes only two-deep with its running backs, the Tide has what is clearly the best backfield duo in the entire country, giving Alabama the edge over Notre Dame and virtually every other team in college football at the position. However, that should not mask the fact that Notre Dame has one of the better backfields in the country themselves. They have three likely NFL players who each bring something different to the table, giving Notre Dame perhaps one of the ten best running back units in the country. Although the Irish aren't really known for their running backs, this will be at least the third-most talented backfield Alabama has faced this season, behind Georgia and probably LSU.
The Irish Quarterback(s)
Notre Dame's starter at quarterback is redshirt freshman Everett Golson (#5), who has emerged to stake claim to what has been a turbulent quarterback situation at Notre Dame during the Brian Kelly regime. Golson is on the small end for a quarterback at just 6'0" and 190 pounds, and his passing accuracy probably needs some improvement if he wants to play on the next level. Still, Golson brings a high level of athleticism to the position, making him the big X-factor in the eyes of many for Monday night's game. Golson is not likely to sit in the pocket and just pick apart the Alabama secondary, but he will be able at times to buy himself time with his feet, and that could be big trouble for the Bama defense, especially if he's able to avoid blitzes and allow himself to find open receivers against undermanned coverages. Although he has missed some time due to injury and was subbed out on a couple of occasions early in the season, Golson has accumulated over 2,100 yards passing while completing 59% of his passes. He has 11 touchdowns on the year while throwing 5 interceptions. He has also gained over 300 yards on the ground and has amassed 5 rushing touchdowns in the process. Golson is not an elite quarterback (or at least isn't as a redshirt freshman) but he is dangerous, especially against an Alabama defense that would probably prefer to play against pocket passers rather than elusive quarterbacks like Golson.
Notre Dame's backup quarterback is one who has had a rather interesting career so far in South Bend. Junior Tommy Rees (#11) went from unheralded recruit to suddenly the starter at the end of his true freshman season, leading the team to some quality wins in the process. Then he endured a rough sophomore season in which he was blamed for many of the team's disappointing losses. After losing his starting job to Golson in the offseason prior to this year, Rees re-emerged to lead the Irish to some highly-contested wins early this season when Golson was either injured or subbed out by the coaching staff. In fact, Rees has orchestrated many of the team's most clutch drives this season, including their biggest win of the season against Stanford in overtime. On the year, Rees has attempted 59 passes, completing 57% for 436 yards, including 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Obviously, Rees is no elite talent, nor is he as dangerous as Golson, but in the event Golson goes down with an injury, the Notre Dame coaching staff knows they can call on a player who has past starting experience and has led this very team on some clutch drives to win games this season.
Comparing Notre Dame's Quarterbacks to Alabama's
Alabama's starter at quarterback is fourth-year junior A.J. McCarron (#10), who has now started for two full seasons. McCarron, to the dismay of many who want to characterize him as a "game manager" is a future NFL quarterback. He announced recently that he would return to Alabama for his fifth season, but prior to that he was projected by many as a middle-round draft pick this year as a junior. He is ranked as the 5th-best quarterback in the junior class nation-wide, meaning that he could even rise to the level of an early-round draft pick with a strong season next year. McCarron has the size at 6'4" and 210 pounds as well as the arm strength to play on the next level. However, his decision-making and accuracy haven't always been as consistent as Alabama fans would like, both last season and at times this season. Still, McCarron has grown into becoming one of the most productive quarterbacks in the country this season. He has thrown 283 times for 2,669 yards while completing 67% of his passes. His touchdown/interception ratio is also quite eye-pleasing (26 touchdowns and 3 interceptions), and in fact garnered him some Heisman talk at points during this season.
McCarron's experience, talent, and production are all superior to Notre Dame's Golson, though of course Golson can do things with his feet that McCarron cannot. Still, Alabama would seem to have the clear edge when it comes to the starting quarterback position, and if that's as far as each team goes, then give Alabama the edge in this category as well. However, if either starter goes down, Notre Dame will be in far better position than Alabama by virtue of being able to rely on an experienced backup that is trusted to perform in the clutch. Alabama's backup quarterback Phillip Sims transferred during the offseason, leaving Alabama with no other quarterback with any playing experience whatsoever--even garbage-time experience. The Tide's backup is now third-year sophomore Blake Sims (#6) who has played at running back for most of his career at Alabama and was only moved to quarterback due to the desperate nature of the situation. If disaster strikes and Alabama has to go to Sims, the offense will have to throw out most of its playbook, as Alabama has relied almost exclusively on a read-option package when Sims has come in to finish off blowout games this season. Obviously, as a former running back in Alabama's backfield, Sims is a fierce runner, but there's a reason he wasn't playing quarterback all along. The only other quarterback available is redshirt freshman Phillip Ely (#12), who could be called upon in such a disastrous situation in obvious passing downs.
All told, as we look at each of the positional breakdowns, it is clear that Alabama has the relatively more talented team, and has been a bit more productive in general than has Notre Dame this season. That's why Vegas--by far the best prognosticators of relative team strength and game outcomes--has Alabama as a 10-point favorite. However, as these pieces have also shown, Notre Dame has a lot more talent than many Alabama fans would like to believe, and despite their struggles at times against some mediocre opposition, this is a team that has enough talent to beat anyone, including Alabama, if the breaks go their way and/or Alabama doesn't play up to its potential.