By TOM COYNE, Associated Press
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame's running back situation has all the ingredients for a rancorous relationship — even an occasional face slap.
There are three talented players: Cierre Wood, whose 1,102 yards rushing last season was the 10th best in Irish history; Theo Riddick, a receiver the past two seasons who returned to his natural running back position this year; and George Atkinson III, son of a former Oakland Raiders great defensive back and a lightning-fast runner.
All three want to be the featured back, but they also understand that there's no room for big egos as the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish (6-0) are off to their best start in a decade. Besides, the three, including housemates Wood and Riddick, say they are great friends who get along like brothers.
"Theo will be sitting on the couch and I'll just come up and smack him in the face, just because I feel like it," Wood said. "Sort of take my frustration out on him. But he'll do the same thing to me. I'll be sitting there and he'll smack me in the face. But at the end of the day, it's all love."
So far, the Irish backs have been saving their best hits for opponents, averaging 181 yards a game rushing — their highest total in 11 seasons. They've done that despite already facing two of the nation's top 10 defenses against the run in Stanford and Michigan State. This week, Notre Dame hosts Brigham Young (4-3), which is ranked third in the country in rush defense, giving up just 67.9 yards a game.
The advantages of the three-back system are that each runner is less tired as the game wears on and opponents are forced to continually adjust. But it's harder for each to get in a rhythm. Wood said that was a hard adjustment to make.
"Basically what I'm trying to do is as soon as I get the ball, I have to be in rhythm," he said. "I trained myself in practice to try to make big things happen every time I touch the ball."
Riddick is the most versatile, leading the Irish in rushing at 308 yards and his 20 catches for 170 yards leads the team in receptions. His 3.8 yards per carry is the lowest among the three, but he has been called on for some of the toughest runs. In the four games since Wood returned from a two-game suspension, Riddick has gotten the ball most often on third down and in the fourth quarter.
Wood, who split time last season with Jonas Gray and is just 16 yards from 2,000 career yards, is averaging 69.8 yards a game and 5.9 a run. Coach Brian Kelly said he doesn't see the roles of Riddick and Wood changing much in the season's second half, but he is looking to make one change.
"We have to get George some more touches," he said.
Atkinson is averaging an eye-popping 9.1 yards on 32 carries, breaking off a 56-yard touchdown run against Navy, a 55-yard TD run against Miami and a 32-yard run against Michigan State. Atkinson is excited about that the chance to get more carries.
"I'd be lying to say it's not in the back of your mind and you should be getting more, because it's your competitive nature," he said.
Kelly is looking for the three to be more disciplined in their running and more patient, allowing the linemen to block — and then to run straight ahead.
"We have a tendency to get too much of an east and west mentality. We want to be more north and south in the running game," he said.
He also wants Wood, who has two catches, and Atkinson, who has one, to work on their pass receiving and all three to work on their blocking. All three say they will continue to work together.
"We all help elevate each other's games. We put pressure on each other in terms of coming to work every day and performing up to our standards," Riddick said.
It could be a slap in the face for whoever doesn't.
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