Notre Dame Football: Amir Carlisle

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Yes, Brian Kelly knows you've all been frustrated with Notre Dame's punt return game. Trust him, he's been every bit as frustrated as you have, and a Fighting Irish spring that opened on a minus-1-degree day back on March 3 has not given him ample opportunity to properly evaluate the unit.

Getting outside for five recent practices has presented some clarity, but the fair-catch-only rule for Saturday's Blue-Gold game won't offer many surprises to the public.

"I’m sure we’ll drop three of them and the Internet will blow up on the punt returns," Kelly quipped.

Kelly isn't sure who the main guy will be, saying Greg Bryant, Torii Hunter Jr., Amir Carlisle and even sports information director Michael Bertsch will get a chance Saturday. (He was kidding about the last name ... we think.)

By recent standards, TJ Jones performed the duty remarkably last season, leading the charge on an Irish return unit that averaged 7.1 yards per punt return, good for 80th nationally. Of course, given the averages in Kelly's first three years at Notre Dame -- 2.2 (120th nationally in 2012), 3.7 (112th in 2011) and 5.4 (100th in 2010) -- there was plenty of room for growth.

Some lessons from Jones' time, however, could carry over, as Bryant received plenty of reps among the crowd during his first preseason camp last August.

"We have some previous experience watching him and spending time with him," Kelly said. "We’re relying on some of that, quite frankly, as to why we have some confidence. I can’t say for certain we’ve got that thing figured out."

Bryant admitted to having some difficulty last season adjusting to the hang time of punter Kyle Brindza. His mindset, meanwhile, is already up to speed.

"You've just got to be fearless," the redshirt freshman said. "Football is football. It's what we've been doing since we were little, so it's like one man won't bring me down."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Just because the relationship between Notre Dame's top quarterbacks is different this time around doesn't necessarily mean Everett Golson and Malik Zaire are stealing each other's playbooks.

"They are competitive, but they do help each other, believe it or not," quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur said Wednesday. "Just the other day at practice Malik made a mistake and Everett was trying to explain to him why he made that mistake. Yeah, there is a competitiveness but those guys also help each other at game time."

Golson-Tommy Rees, this is not, as coach Brian Kelly made pretty clear earlier this spring. And the frontrunner to be the Irish's starter will likely have to wait four-plus months to be officially declared the No. 1 guy.

LaFleur, the first-year Irish assistant, said he has been more focused this spring on getting everyone on the same page before drawing any comparisons between the two signal callers, be it through stats or other tangible measurements.

"Honestly, I don't think it makes a difference right now," LaFleur said of knowing a starter this early. "I think each guy, whether you're an offensive lineman, receiver, running back -- you're kind of focused on your job. And No. 1, I tell the quarterbacks, do your job. You've got to do your job before you can even worry about anyone else or any other situation. I think from an offensive standpoint, I think everybody's just focused on improving their own skills and improving each day."

Both quarterbacks have heeded that advice, stressing that their concerns have lied inward, not on what the other was doing.

"It's definitely put me in another level of capability in terms of just being comfortable within the offense," Zaire said. "I think this year and this spring specifically it's gotten better for me because I'm in there a lot more than last year."

Notes: LaFleur, a Mt. Pleasant, Mich., native, said he will recruit Michigan locally while having responsibilities on the West Coast, from the Los Angeles area up through Washington. He has Hawaii, as well. … Notre Dame was finally able to practice outside Monday and Wednesday, making conditions more ideal for the always-intriguing punt return unit. Running backs coach Tony Alford mentioned Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle, Torii Hunter Jr. and Josh Atkinson as players who have gotten looks in the return game.

Irish lunch links

March, 24, 2014
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Bracket hanging in there ... barely.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Spring football is under way at Notre Dame. And if the snowbanks at every turn of campus weren't an indication, the sight of a No. 5 throwing footballs in a red jersey again sure was.

Yes, all eyes were on Everett Golson during his first Irish practice in nearly a year, with Avicii's "Levels" blasting once stretching was done and the tempo drill was under way. The media was able to view the first 30 minutes of practice from a balcony in the Loftus Sports Complex, with Golson and the offense running tempo on the far end of the field and the defense getting into gear right below us.

Golson is set to meet the media after practice for the first time since his return to school so we will have more on him later on Monday. As for what could be gathered about his weapons with the 2014 season still far away …
We'll have more later on Monday, as Golson will be joined by seven other players, plus coach Brian Kelly, following the completion of spring practice No. 1.

New faces must step up as spring opens

February, 28, 2014
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly got into his car on Friday morning and saw that the outside temperature was minus-8 degrees -- as if there was any doubt Notre Dame would be indoors on Monday when the Irish commence Kelly's fifth spring here.

What he will see, though, are more new faces in new places than he probably has during his Irish tenure. And he's anxious to see who rises up from a team that said early goodbyes to three juniors after the 2013 season and welcomes two new staff members.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsBrian Kelly is looking for some new faces to step forward in the spring.
"In an ideal world you'd want your best players to be your best leaders," Kelly said. "Sometimes that's not the case, so you observe daily and find out who those guys are and you try to cultivate those individuals. I think with this group in '14 our best players can be our best leaders and they may not all be seniors. I think we've got some great seniors, I think all of our seniors are committed, but we may have some great underclassmen who are great leaders, too."

The additions of assistants Matt LaFleur (quarterbacks) and Brian Van Gorder (defensive coordinator) have given the staff more flexibility as well, as Kelly said Friday that Kerry Cooks will now coach the entire secondary, not just the cornerbacks, while Bob Elliott will move from safeties coach to outside linebackers coach. Kelly also added graduate assistants in former NFL fullback Ryan Mahaffey (offense), former Irish safety Kyle McCarthy (defense) and Mike Hiestand (defense), son of current Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

As for switches on the field: Matthias Farley has moved from safety to corner, John Turner has gone from safety to outside linebacker, James Onwualu has moved from receiver to safety, Will Mahone has moved from running back to receiver, and Amir Carlisle is now a runner and a receiver. Everett Golson, meanwhile, has returned at a listed 200 pounds, 15 pounds heavier from his listed playing weight from 2012.

Personnel notes: Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Devin Butler (shoulder) are out for spring. … Nick Martin (MCL) and Ben Councell (ACL) will be limited to non-contact. … Nicky Baratti, Chase Hounshell and Doug Randolph (all shoulders) are good to go. … Receiver Luke Massa will not return for a fifth season after initially planning to come back. Kelly said Massa had received a job offer that was too good to pass up.

Kelly on Shembo: Kelly addressed Prince Shembo's comments during last weekend's NFL combine, when the former Irish linebacker said the coach told him not to talk in school about the the Lizzy Seeberg investigation.

"That was a collaborative decision," Kelly said Friday. "I don't make any decisions independent when it comes to major decisions at this university. The head football coach works in concert with our administration, so we made a decision based upon the information that we had that we felt it was in Prince's best interest that this was not a matter that needed to be discussed, but that was certainly something that he could've decided to discuss. We didn't threaten him with, he couldn't play or we were going to put him on the bench or throw him out of school. It was still his decision. But talking to his parents and talking to Prince we felt because of the information that we had in front of us that it was a matter that be left alone at the time."

Position battles to watch: No. 2

February, 20, 2014
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Our series looking at the top position battles this spring turns its attention to the backfield.

Running backs

[+] EnlargeCam McDaniel
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCam McDaniel was a surprising leading rusher for Notre Dame in 2013.
George Atkinson III is off to try his hand at the NFL after a sub-par junior campaign in which he entered the season as the top option before falling out of favor with the coaching staff, which suspended him for the for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

Atkinson was second on the team in carries (93) and rushing yards (555), adding three touchdowns. Notre Dame as a whole had a down year running the ball, checking in at No. 80 nationally, at 151 yards per game. But as KC Joyner mentioned a few weeks ago, the running backs might have been better than advertised, as they avoided losses and return some experienced blockers up front. Having a mobile quarterback in the backfield will only help bolster the running attack, too.

The leading returning back is the surprising Cam McDaniel, who enters his senior year coming off a 2013 campaign that saw him tally 705 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 152 carries. Notre Dame knows what it has in McDaniel, a valuable piece to have in this relatively young backfield moving forward.

The biggest guys to keep an eye on this spring, however, are Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. The four-star prospects came in with plenty of hype last season but only one really delivered on it, with Folston going for 470 yards and three touchdowns on 88 carries. The bulk of his production came late in the season, as he earned a heavier workload and carried the ball 11 or more times for 47 or more yards in five of the Irish's final six games.

Bryant, meanwhile, carried the ball just three times for 14 yards in three games and he was shut down for the season because of tendinitis, likely earning a medical redshirt. He is back at full health and practiced with the team late in the season, though, leaving many to wonder if he can begin to show glimpses of the potential he flashed in high school and help further the Irish ground game.

Let's not forget about Amir Carlisle, either, as the USC transfer played in every game and tallied 204 rushing yards on 47 carries. All of the backs need to become better pass-catchers to help open things up for the offense, and while none of these players lack for experience, the potential they show moving forward makes for an intriguing battle to watch unfold this spring.
For three years, Brian Kelly had success like few others in recruiting players back to school. Sure, Kyle Rudolph left after Year 1 of the Kelly era, but since then the Notre Dame coach had successfully gotten Michael Floyd, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Louis Nix and Zack Martin to come back to the Irish for their fourth (and, in Martin's case, fifth) seasons of college ball.

That changed drastically this season. With several highly projected underclassmen on their roster, the Irish figured to say goodbye to one or two underclassmen early. And even when Kelly said in late December that he had submitted paperwork to the NFL advisory board for Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, few expected all three to leave school early.

Then January came along, and within one week's span, all three players declared for the draft, choosing to avoid the recent trend and skip their final seasons. Each had his reasons, so here's a look at the trio and a look at who on the Irish roster will be tasked with filling the big shoes in 2014.

(Worth noting: Nix, who had a fifth season of eligibility available to him in 2014, is not included in this group, because he graduated in December.)

Leaving: Stephon Tuitt
Replacement: Isaac Rochell
The outlook: It is worth noting that Justin Utupo will return for a fifth year and that veterans Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Chase Hounshell (shoulder) are expected to be back at full health next fall after both missed the 2013 season. Together, all will be counted on to replace the production of Tuitt, who was one of the best pass-rushers in school history. Still, if the Irish are looking for a youngster to step up, they will turn to Rochell, who ended up seeing much more playing time as a true freshman than initially expected this past fall, given the injury bug that affected the Irish in the trenches. ESPN's No. 139 overall player from the class of 2013 played in 11 games, recording 10 total tackles. The 6-foot-3.5, 280-pounder is a far cry from the 6-foot-6.5, 312-pound Tuitt physically, but most typically are. The bottom line is Tuitt will be the hardest of Notre Dame's early departures to replace, but Rochell will probably see his role increase the most in his sophomore season. Junior Sheldon Day, entering his second year as a starter, will be counted on even more this coming fall as well.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Celebration
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCam McDaniel (33) led the Irish with 705 rushing yards in 2013.
Leaving: George Atkinson III
Replacement: Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant
The outlook: Atkinson should be the easiest of the early departures to replace, as his playing time and production took a big dip late during this past season. He was ultimately suspended for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for what Kelly called a violation of team rules, a violation that Atkinson later tweeted (and then deleted) consisted of him texting during a team meal. Still, the Irish have the always-reliable McDaniel back for another year, and the Coppell, Texas, native actually had more carries (152-93) and rushing yards (742-583) than Atkinson in 2013 while helping with kick-return duties as well. The most important developments to keep an eye on, though, are those of Folston and Bryant, both of whom came to Notre Dame as highly touted four-star backs expected to deliver immediate boosts. Bryant had trouble gaining playing time early and ultimately suffered a knee injury that forced him to take a medical redshirt, but Folston came on strong late in the season, finishing with 88 carries for 470 yards and three touchdowns. Things will be tougher next season with a rebuilt offensive line, and all of these backs need to improve as pass-catchers, but there remains plenty of promise in the fold. Let's not rule out redshirt junior Amir Carlisle, either.

Leaving: Troy Niklas
Replacement: Ben Koyack
The outlook: Niklas, who began his career at linebacker, played tight end at Notre Dame for just two years, coming on this past fall after the departure of Eifert, as he hauled in 32 passes for 498 yards and five touchdowns. He was improving as a blocker and was on track to become one of the best tight ends in the country next season. Now Koyack will be tasked with a bigger workload in his senior season. He, too, came on strong late last season, finishing with 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns, though he often played in two-tight-end sets with Niklas and gave the Irish plenty of offensive flexibility.

Carlisle gets another view of ND-USC

October, 17, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Amir Carlisle was able to visit his family during this past bye weekend. He would not have been able to do that were he still at USC.

[+] EnlargeAmir Carlisle
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports Amir Carlisle looks for his third straight win in the USC-ND rivalry.
Carlisle has played for the same head coach all season. He also would not have been able to do that were he still at USC.

And the redshirt sophomore is going for his third straight win Saturday in the USC-Notre Dame rivalry — one more perk he would not have the shot at had were he still a Trojan.

Yes, it appears much has worked out for Carlisle since his switching of sides in what is perhaps the nation's most-storied cross-country rivalry. After following his family to the Midwest once father Duane was hired by Purdue as its director of sports performance, Carlisle now finds himself on the more stable end of the rivalry. He and the Irish will welcome his old friends and new foes for Saturday's primetime showdown at Notre Dame Stadium, in what will be Ed Orgeron's second game as interim coach.

It is quite a role reversal from Carlisle's first game inside the venue, when the then-true freshman and his Trojans delivered a death-blow to Notre Dame's BCS hopes in a 31-17 upset that propelled USC to a 10-2 finish and a top-5 ranking.

"It was the most, I guess you could say, live environment that we had that season," Carlisle said. "It was Notre Dame. Coach [Lane] Kiffin preached that the whole entire week, that this was a big game, this was Notre Dame. And I remember the energy that we had going into that game, it was very high. We got off the bus rocking the bus, so it was a great experience to come here and actually play."

The turnaround has been somewhat emotional for Carlisle this week as he readies to face Marqise Lee, George Farmer, Antwaun Woods and some of his good friends still out in Los Angeles.

His father said that the family had a pastor pray over Carlisle back home this past weekend to help keep him from getting overwhelmed by the different forces at play entering the game.

"I'm not going to lie," Carlisle said. "Yeah, there's an excitement for me personally to be able to face my former team. I'm not going to let that excitement deter me from my focus on the game itself. I'm going to approach this game like any other game, but there is a little extra excitement."

Carlisle's workload has taken a dramatic dip over the Irish's past three games, as he has received just eight total carries after getting the call 30 times through the first quarter of the season. A Week 3 fumble late at Purdue had put the Irish's win in jeopardy and has minimized his opportunities since.

His father, who was on the Boilermakers' sideline for the contest, said the scene unfolded in slow motion for him.

"I just hear everybody saying, 'Ball's out! Ball's out!' " Duane Carlisle said. "And everybody's ecstatic on our sideline, the whole stadium erupts, I can only imagine what the coaches are thinking on the other sideline and I was just frozen, I was frozen. That's my son, and to know that he had all that on his shoulders in that moment was tough. It was tough. If I could've called a timeout myself and tell him things are going to be OK, I would've."

Instead, he later hopped on a three-way phone call with his son and a former player of his, 49ers star Frank Gore. Carlisle was a ball boy when his father worked for San Francisco before the Purdue move, and he received a hands-on education from a number of NFL veterans. Gore, Duane Carlisle said, had taken Amir under his wing, and he wanted to help the fellow running back put the gaffe behind him after the Purdue game.

This weekend will mark the second reunion of sorts in the past five games for Carlisle, who missed all of last season because of an ankle injury suffered shortly after the NCAA granted him a transfer waiver to play immediately. With USC and Notre Dame his top targets coming out of King's Academy in Sunnyvale, Calif., and with his father then employed by the 49ers, Carlisle had ultimately chosen the Trojans three years ago, with their proximity to Hollywood and his desires to become an actor then serving as heavy factors. The family's move to the West Lafayette, Ind., area made his switch to Notre Dame ideal, and he is still able to major in film, along with management information systems.

Carlisle will see many familiar faces Saturday night, though not the one who had brought him to USC, as Kiffin was fired five games into this season. The reviled ex-coach has been an easy target for much of his career, but the Carlisles are thankful for the time they spent with him.

"Lane Kiffin did right by us, totally," Duane Carlisle said. "I hate to see a man lose his job. He loved Amir. He did right by Amir. I don't have anything negative to say about USC as a football program."

ND run game still trying to get going

September, 25, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly might have inadvertently left Greg Bryant out of the running back rotation when he said Sunday that Notre Dame was rotating four men in the backfield. But the Irish coach said Tuesday that the highly-touted freshmen still factors into the running game moving forward.

"We just got to four. I'd like to get to five," Kelly said. "Greg certainly has a skill set that we just haven't gotten into the game yet. But again, we're trying to get him in on special teams. He's on kickoff right now. We're trying to get him involved in some of the other running teams. But we got to four, we're trying to get to five."

Notre Dame's run-game struggles have been no secret this season, as the Irish have not eclipsed the 100-yard mark as a team since the opener against Temple. Bryant received two of his three carries on the season late in that game, tallying 12 yards. He then rushed once in the first quarter against Purdue for two yards, and received no carries in the Irish's second and fourth games.

The four-star recruit from Delray Beach, Fla., was ESPN's No. 2 running back prospect last season, and he had initially committed to the school he will face this week, Oklahoma.

"It's about scripting five and trying to get five into the game more than anything else," Kelly said of the 5-foot-10, 204-pound Bryant. "We have him scripted into certain plays, it's just really the flow of the game and the circumstances in trying to get him in."

Fellow Florida freshman back Tarean Folston, ESPN's No. 6 player at the position last season, received three straight carries during one drive Saturday against Michigan State, tallying nine yards. He has nine carries on the season for 26 yards, to go with a nine-yard catch.

All five running backs are listed as co-starters on this week's depth chart. Cam McDaniel's 45 carries for 169 yards both lead the team, with much of his work coming in late-game situations with the Irish trying to run the clock out. McDaniel received Notre Dame's final 12 carries Saturday.

George Atkinson III, the front-runner for the No. 1 spot heading into the season, has 24 carries for 121 yards, trailing Amir Carlisle's 33 carries for 157 yards.

Notre Dame is averaging just 114.3 rushing yards per game, 99th in the nation. Its offensive line, however, has surrendered just three sacks on the season.

"There are so many factors to that," Kelly said of the difference in pass- and run-blocking. "They're blocking the five guys that they're supposed to block pretty good. There are times when obviously we need to be better at it. We have to block seven and eight, and we've got to get better at that. But they're doing a great job in pass protection. We need to do a much better job as a unit, as a whole, and that's not just the offensive line, that's everybody, coaches and tight ends included, in blocking the whole play."

Five things: Notre Dame-MSU

September, 21, 2013
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Notre Dame concludes the Big Ten portion of its schedule at 3:30 ET Saturday against Michigan State. Here are five things we'll be watching for as the Fighting Irish try to make it three in a row over the Spartans.

[+] EnlargeCam McDaniel
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsCam McDaniel helped salt away the Purdue victory with some rugged fourth-quarter running.
Getting the ground game going: Notre Dame has struggled to establish a true run game so far this season. Granted, the Irish have spent much of the past two games playing from behind, but they still average just 125 rushing yards per game, good for 91st nationally. While there appears to be a clear separation between the junior running backs (George Atkinson III, Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel) and the freshmen (Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston), there is still no true pecking order. McDaniel carried the ball 10 times on Notre Dame's final drive against Purdue to run out the clock, but Carlisle has the slight lead in carries (30) and rushing yards (148) so far this season. How things shake out Saturday, and moving forward the rest of the season, is anyone's guess.

Defensive line play: Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt entered 2013 as preseason All-Americans seemingly destined to become high first-round draft picks this spring. Nix has just eight total tackles and one tackle for loss through three games. Tuitt has four tackles to go with a sack and a gifted pick-six courtesy of Devin Gardner. Of course, numbers don't tell the whole story with defensive linemen, but Notre Dame's opponents in the first three games have done a great job of establishing a quick passing game, taking the defensive line out of the game. It remains to be seen whether Michigan State has the personnel to negate the strengths of the Irish's front.

Sheldon Day's status: Speaking of defensive line play, let's not forget about the third starter, sophomore Sheldon Day. The Indianapolis native suffered a sprained ankle late last Saturday at Purdue and was in a walking boot this week before returning to the practice field Thursday. Coach Brian Kelly said that Day is a game-time decision, and his potential absence could further test a line whose depth has been shrinking since the summer.

Punt return unit tries to improve: TJ Jones totaled 41 punt return yards through Notre Dame's first two games, just five yards shy of the Irish's total for all of last season. Last week at Purdue, however, Jones and the punt return game looked like the unit of the previous two years, with Jones making the mental mistake of fair-catching a punt at his own 4-yard line in the first quarter, then nearly going after a punt that bounced by him in the third quarter, a very dangerous move. Colleague Brian Bennett predicted a special teams score Saturday for Notre Dame, as the Irish look to put the horrors of their recent punt return history in the past.

Tommy Rees' momentum: Don't look now, but the senior is seventh nationally in passing yards with 969 to go with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Rees leads the nation in passing yards against FBS opponents. He was strong in the second half at Purdue and had a strong sideline presence in between drives, demanding teammates' undivided attention as he eventually led them out of a late hole. Rees earned a game ball for his efforts, and he will look to keep the rhythm going against the Spartans' top-ranked defense.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Two months ago, DaVaris Daniels had an idea to help develop chemistry. He invited a handful of teammates, and a former teammate, over to his house in Vernon Hills, Ill., a little more than two hours northwest of Notre Dame. They spent a weekend working out at his alma mater, Vernon Hills, and at nearby Lake Forest, Tommy Rees' high school.

Fellow wideouts Chris Brown and C.J. Prosise were there. So, too, were running backs Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson III. And they had suspended quarterback Everett Golson throwing them balls, since those connections might very well resume next season.

"Just build chemistry, keep it," Daniels said. "Last year we had a pretty tight team, so that was kind of my main thing, was just to keep everybody close and keep what we had last season and continue into this season."

[+] EnlargeDaVaris Daniels
AP Photo/Michael ConroyDaVaris Daniels committed to getting better this offseason. The results are showing already.
This was one way Daniels, Notre Dame's leading receiver, matured into the type of offensive linchpin the Irish were seeking after saying goodbye to first-round picks Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert in consecutive years. Others on the checklist included fine-tuning route-running, becoming a better blocker and bringing a consistent work ethic to the field every single day.

Early returns have been positive, with Daniels hauling in two fourth-quarter touchdown passes on consecutive plays last week in a tight win at Purdue. He has 17 receptions this season for team bests of 299 yards and four touchdowns, or four more than he scored during last year's redshirt freshman campaign, his first year of college action. That season concluded with a national title-game rout courtesy of Alabama and its top-ranked defense, though it also served as something of a coming-out party for the 6-foot-1½, 203-pound receiver.

Daniels had six catches for a game-high 115 yards against the Crimson Tide. But whatever that did for his confidence paled in comparison to the humiliation of a 42-14 defeat.

So he went back to work. Being able to run a 4.5 40 and leap upward of 40 inches was one thing; harnessing those gifts into production was still quite another.

There were the summer workouts with teammates back home. There was rooming with Rees during camp, the nightly picking of his starting quarterback's brain about where to be on certain routes and how to make their timing more crisp. He learned how to use his hands better off the snap, making life harder for the corners matched up with him daily in practice.

All of this in the name of fulfilling all of that untapped potential.

"He's two-quarters of the way," coach Brian Kelly said. "He needs to be four-quarters of the way."

He is aware. KeiVarae Russell recalls Daniels telling him a year ago about his desire to become one of Notre Dame's greatest receivers ever.

"I was like, 'I don't doubt you. I think you will,' " the sophomore cornerback said. "So far it's shown. You can see it's totally different from last year. Last year he didn't even have one touchdown. He played a great role last year but didn't have one single touchdown. He has four in three games. You can see the difference. That shows."

His quarterback, having gone to high school just 10 miles away, knew the kind of athlete he was getting when Daniels came aboard two years ago.

"I remember playing him in a summer league basketball game the summer going into my senior year," Rees said. "We actually won, but he had, like, a tip-slam over a guy, and it was just kind of, 'Not many guys could be out here doing that.' "

In the past two years, Daniels' father, former NFL defensive lineman Phillip Daniels, had seen a mindset that belied that athleticism. Playing in a wing-T offense in high school and adjusting to a redshirt year in college slowed the learning curve some.

Now, Phillip says, DaVaris simply isn't thinking so much anymore. Mastering the basics of the craft has turned one of the nation's top prep receivers into a guy who could very well be on his way to becoming one of the nation's elite college wideouts.

"He had to learn little things as a receiver," Phillip Daniels said. "I think because he's learning all that stuff, and learning the plays and how to play the position, it's slowing down for him. It's not running through his mind at 100 miles per hour, and he can play football."

Planning for success: Notre Dame

September, 19, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- There were times this week when Cam McDaniel went in the film room and saw 11 players in green jerseys all at once, with a ball-carrier on the ground nearby.
McDaniel, Notre Dame's second-leading rusher, knows just what kind of test awaits this Saturday when 3-0 Michigan State comes to town. The Spartans have the nation's top overall defense, rank No. 4 nationally in rush defense and are tied for fourth overall in fumble recoveries, with four on the season.

"They like to stop the run," McDaniel said. "They're physical run-stoppers. Their safeties fly downhill and everybody gets in on the action. You can stop the tape when the ball-carrier's being taken down and sometimes there are 11 guys between the hashes or around the ball, and that's something we know is going to be a challenge that we're looking to be up to."

The Irish have yet to get into much of a rhythm on the ground so far this season. Five backs have seen carries, with three splitting the majority of them. USC transfer Amir Carlisle leads all rushers in carries (30) and yards (148), but McDaniel got the call late Saturday after Carlisle fumbled in the fourth quarter against Purdue.

Up 31-24 after getting the ball back with 7:22 left, Notre Dame turned to the junior from Coppell, Texas, on 10 plays during its final drive, with McDaniel tallying 42 yards and picking up two first downs to help run the clock out.

"It was just an opportunity that presented itself for me at that moment," McDaniel said. "I just had to be ready and I was ready in my mind and was just ready to go, and when the opportunity presented itself I knew that I was capable of getting the job done and just went in and executed. Obviously there's things that I still need to work on individually as a back, but it was enough to get the job done last Saturday."

McDaniel, who has 29 carries for 125 yards and a touchdown through three games, said getting implemented in the passing game was something he could work on, though that is an area that has also plagued his backfield colleagues so far this season.

George Atkinson III, No. 1 on the depth chart entering this season, had trouble catching the ball two weeks ago at Michigan, though he has made an impact on the ground by rushing for 98 yards and a touchdown on just 18 carries.

While there is no true pecking order just yet and each of the backs has said it is not an issue, there is no mistaking the drop-off from last year, when Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood were around to lead a rushing attack that averaged better than 200 yards per game in the regular season. (They finished at 189.38 after losing to Alabama in the title game.)

This year's outfit churns out 125 yards on the ground per contest, currently 92nd nationally. And while, like last year, there are three returning starters up front, the offensive line is shouldering some of the responsibility for the sub-par production one-quarter of the way through the season.

"We've got backs that can run the football and we have to block for them," fifth-year left tackle and two-year captain Zack Martin said. "But all the backs are capable of running, and if you go in and watch the tape you can see that it's not on them."

McDaniel helps Irish escape Purdue

September, 15, 2013
9/15/13
2:35
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Cam McDaniel began his night behind a true freshman who had two career carries. He ended it talking about the guys up front, the five men who make up what he believes is "the best offensive line in the nation."

His first play was a reception that netted a 3-yard loss. Seven plays later, he took a pop that cost him his helmet and earned him four stitches in the head.

His name was called 10 times on his team's final 11 plays of consequence. With everyone in Ross-Ade Stadium aware of what was coming, he picked up two crucial first downs, helping Notre Dame avoid an early season crisis and escape here with a 31-24 victory over Purdue.

[+] EnlargeCam McDaniel
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsCam McDaniel emerged as an unlikely hero for the Irish against Purdue.
"It's always a great opportunity to really get in the game and just be able to let loose, so just praise God for the opportunity," McDaniel said, "and once again, we've got the best offensive line in the nation, so it makes it really fun."

Yes, McDaniel even says all the right things, too.

But little about Saturday night's game was fun for the Irish, who fell behind by 10, entered the fourth quarter trailing by seven and came up with several big plays in the final frame to avoid a two-game losing streak.

There was Tommy Rees-to-DaVaris Daniels twice -- first a third-and-goal play from the 9 to tie the game, then an 82-yard strike on their very next snap to take the lead. There was Bennett Jackson's 34-yard pick-six three plays later that caused a deep exhale among most watching the primetime affair, as it gave the Irish a 31-17 lead.

Daniels' eight-catch, 167-yard effort was another encouraging sign for the third-year player beginning to look like Notre Dame's next great wideout, though for 30 minutes the Irish offense was outplayed by every statistical measure. The defense's play up until Jackson's pick -- and even in the drive after it, when it surrendered a 75-yard touchdown drive to an offense that reached the end zone just once last week against FCS Indiana State -- left a lot to be desired.

Still, on a night when Brian Kelly said the Irish are in the process of defining who they are and that they are still trying to find themselves, their surest thing was McDaniel, the junior the coach turned to with seven minutes, 22 seconds separating his team from its second win of the season.

"We were trying to run out the game," Kelly said. "We were in our four-minute offense and he was the guy that we had decided was going to run the football at the end of the game. He was the hot hand at that time."

By that point McDaniel's Q rating was already booming, at least among the social media landscape. The Texan who had won over Notre Dame fans last month by running into the wrong side of the practice gauntlet -- at Coach's order, of course -- played himself even further into everyone's hearts as a receiver, runner and tackler. His one catch, for negative-3 yards? That was more like a takeaway from Purdue corner Antoine Lewis, who had jumped the route and probably had pick-six on his mind before McDaniel won the tug-of-war battle in the second quarter. His four consecutive runs later on the drive -- including the lost-helmet carry -- helped set the Irish up for their first three points of the game. His one tackle, in the third quarter, stopped Purdue's B.J. Knauf on a 39-yard kickoff return, which, of course, came immediately after his 1-yard touchdown run had tied the game at 10.

McDaniel's final line was 16 carries, 56 yards, one touchdown. And that one catch, for negative-3 yards. He was the fourth Irish back to receive a carry on the night, after Amir Carlisle, George Atkinson III and freshman Greg Bryant.

He saw action on all but three plays on the drive -- an early third-down Daniels catch and two Rees kneels to make this one official. He tallied 42 yards during the possession, despite failing to gain on three different plays. But he became Notre Dame's most reliable backfield option down the stretch, stepping in after a Carlisle fumble one possession earlier had provided Purdue a chance to tie the game late.

"I think we've got five guys that are very capable of making plays at any point in the game, so that's just a blessing to just be one of the guys," McDaniel said. "I think any one of us is able to finish it out strong, and we're all competitors. We just want to win."

He said all of this while mostly looking up at the faces and cameras staring in his direction. McDaniel is listed at 5-foot-10. The author of this story is 5-10. Cam McDaniel is not 5-10.

And his interview session would not be complete without one more quote that would make any coach smile.

"You've got to give Purdue a lot of credit," he said. "They always play us tough every time. This is a rivalry game."

Irish lunch links

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
12:00
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Friday the 13th. My favorite. (Seriously.)
An early 10-point deficit in Notre Dame's loss at Michigan did little to help clear up the Irish's backfield pecking order.

Notre Dame ran the ball just 19 times and threw it 53 times, though Michigan stacking the box may have had as much to do with that as anything.

Amir Carlisle
Robin Alam/Icon SMIAmir Carlisle leads Notre Dame running backs in carries and yards, but it's way too soon to say he's "the guy" in the Irish backfield.
"There's eight guys on the line of scrimmage," Kelly said. "If the box is plus-one and plus-two, there's not much of a running game. When we had two-shell and we had the ability to run the ball, we ran the ball effectively. And then we got behind. We were down two scores. We had to speed the game up and throw the football.

"I want balance just like everybody else in America wants balance," Kelly said. "But look, we have to throw the ball effectively when we are called upon to throw the ball and we have to run the ball effectively when we are called upon to run effectively.

"You know, balance is this panacea that everyone looks for, but you need to win football games and whatever it takes to win football games, we'd better be good at it. We'd better be good at scoring points running the ball, and we'd better be good at throwing the ball when the situations call for it."

Amir Carlisle leads all Irish running backs in both carries (19) and yards (132) through two games. His four catches for 14 yards are also the most among the backs.

George Atkinson III was the most experienced of the six-man group coming into the season, and he is the only running back to reach the end zone so far, carrying the ball 13 times for 71 yards through two games. But the junior has struggled to catch the ball, prompting former backfield mate Cierre Wood to take a playful jab at him on Twitter and prompting Kelly the day after the game to say: "He's got to stand next to me on the sideline. He's either got to catch the football, or he doesn't get scripted in those plays."

Cam McDaniel also has 13 carries, tallying 69 yards, though he had just one carry for four yards this past Saturday.

Freshmen Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant did not receive carries against the Wolverines after carrying the ball five and two times, respectively, in the opener -- though again, that stems from circumstance as much as anything. (William Mahone returned from a high ankle sprain Saturday but did not receive a carry.)

Still, Kelly has cautioned, it is too early to anoint anyone "The Guy," regardless of what the small sample size says.

"I wouldn't look too much into Amir being the guy," Kelly said. "We are two games into this. Really too early. We like the way he ran. Ran hard. Had yards after contact. Obviously we like that a lot. But we're still a work-in-progress there."

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