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Irish sorting out backfield picture

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The quarterback guru turned his attention to the backfield early Friday once Notre Dame broke for its first on-campus preseason practice. Brian Kelly saw a six-man rotation vying to replace one of the Irish's most productive rushing attacks in nearly two decades. He saw two freshmen he believes can help his team win ballgames.

"He expects a lot out of us," redshirt sophomore Amir Carlisle said of Kelly. "Our expectations are high. We're a young group, really haven't proven much on the field collectively, so we're kind of the staple. The offensive line, they're grinding up front, but we also have to make plays for this offense to run. So him being over there just shows the importance of our position group to the team and gives us more of a sense of responsibility in terms of performing day in and day out."

So it goes for perhaps the biggest question mark on a Notre Dame team fairly short on them following a 12-1 season.

The Irish have a surplus of running backs. The Irish lack a proven every-down running back. These next three weeks can help create separation among a group whose pecking order can shake out in a number of different ways.

"I think the ability first and foremost to run the football within our schemes and how we want them to run the football," Kelly said Friday. "I think if you saw how it shook out last year, Theo Riddick was the No. 1 running back because he ran the ball the way we wanted to play the game last year, so that will be the No. 1 running back. All the other backs will have a role within the offense: It could be pass-catching, it could be protection, it could be a little bit of both — somebody that can do all those things. It can be a third-down back, it could be a guy that gets us that tough yard. But the No. 1 clear back will be that guy that runs the ball most effectively that is truly the best running back, that has yet to be determined."

Notre Dame lost Riddick and Cierre Wood. Together, they helped the Irish rush for 200-plus yards seven times in 2012, the program's most such games since 1996. The left side of the line that helped them to those totals, Zack Martin and Chris Watt, is back for one more season, as is Christian Lombard on the right side.

A trio of first-year players — Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston and redshirt freshman William Mahone — have caught everyone's attention early and are looking to make their marks.

"Probably more pleased with that group than any," Kelly said. "You have guys that can help us win right now. Greg Bryant can help us win. Will Mahone had a great offseason, he's had a great camp. He's playing a little bit more in the slot. He's got very good ball skills. We didn't even know how good his ball skills were until we started to put him in the slot a little more. He's really come on and probably been one of those guys in the first few days that has caught our attention."

In full-contact periods on Friday, Mahone displayed those skills, taking a short pass from Tommy Rees and juking two defenders separately for a long gain.

The youngsters are pushing a front line that is speared by junior George Atkinson III — he of 361 yards and five scores last season — the finally healthy USC transfer Carlisle and junior Cam McDaniel.

"I'm trying to fit into that leader role," Atkinson said. "It's new to me. I'm trying to get a feel for the game and how we react to things, the coaches, because we've got basically a brand new group of guys, so for me I'm feeling comfortable with that role."

Notes: Conor Hanratty (neck strain) was not in pads, forcing Christian Lombard to work at right guard and Ronnie Stanley to work beside him at right tackle. Kelly said Hanratty should be fine. ... Danny Spond was not at practice, though Kelly said it was nothing that would jeopardize his availability for the opener against Temple. Ben Councell worked with the first team, along with Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Prince Shembo.