- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The light is not just clicking on for Cam McDaniel because he's entering his senior season. No, the way the Notre Dame fan favorite sees it, those seeds have been planted for three years running now, and not just with him assuming the role of elder statesman in a crowded Irish backfield.
"To be completely honest, I have had to have that before, and leadership doesn't start when you're a senior, it starts when you're a freshman," McDaniel said. "It starts with the ability to recognize, 'Hey,' and even like the ability to jump in and follow when you need to follow and observe like, who's doing what right and who's doing what wrong, and how you can compound and build off of that going into the next year.
"And so to just I guess jump into a leadership role isn't really possible -- you've got to have the tangibles of being a leader, and I feel like that's something that I carry. And for me leadership is natural. It's stepping into a position to be a standard-bearer for the team."
While that quote is sure to tug at the heartstrings of Notre Dame Nation, McDaniel is eager to push forward a ground game that he feels could be as complete as any in the nation, as a backfield that was uneven at times in 2013 returns everyone but George Atkinson III (draft defection) and welcomes back a mobile signal-caller in Everett Golson, who rushed for 298 yards and six touchdowns in 2012.
As for his goals this season, McDaniel, the team's leading returning rusher (705 yards in 2013), delivered another gem.
"Winning a national championship, that's the end goal for this team," the Coppell, Texas, native said. "And [with] the talent that we have, I feel like we're very capable of doing that. That's our team goal, and if anybody else says anything otherwise then they shouldn't be here."
Coming just within the vicinity of that goal will likely depend in large part on the development of the sophomores behind McDaniel: Tarean Folston (470 yards) and Greg Bryant (14), a pair of former ESPN four-star prospects from Florida.
Coach Brian Kelly likes the bruising mentality of Bryant, who's looking to put behind a forgettable rookie campaign that was plagued by injury. But the fifth-year coach knows he'll need more than a single major backfield contributor this season if the Irish want to return to 2012 form.
"I think he's probably what we've always thought about him -- his workouts, top of the line in everything that he does," Kelly said of Bryant. "I know our guys don't like to tackle him. He's physical. He's got all the tools to be a premier running back, and so you add him to the mix with Cam and Tarean, we feel really fortunate to have three great running backs."