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Notre Dame Football

Audric Estimé, Irish Running Backs Enter 2023 Season ‘A Lot Fresher’

August 16, 2023
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Notre Dame hosted its bi-annual jersey scrimmage on Saturday. 

Once again, the offense won and retained the blue practice jerseys — all with one of their best players on the sidelines. 

“I didn't go,” running back Audric Estimé said. 

Was he bandaged and bruised? 

Dehydrated? 

Did he twist an ankle or tweak his groin?

On the contrary, he’s far healthier than this last year. 

Coach Deland McCullough simply gave his 1,000-yard, all-purpose back the day off. 

“I feel a lot fresher,” Estimé said. “I feel like my legs are underneath me more, and I just feel ready to go.”

Heading into his junior season, Estimé can afford to take rest days.  He’s well-versed in the nuances of running inside and outside zone and duo and picking up a blitzing linebacker in pass protection. 

On Tuesday, he showed off his current short-area burst by effortlessly hurdling a trash can.

Estimé’s body gets a holiday on rest days, but he remains mentally engaged, watching his teammates.

“I feel like the mental aspect is as important as the physical aspect,” Estimé said. “A lot of guys say I had a good practice because I ran fast, I hit the hole well. But did you see the blitzer coming off the edge, and I feel like that's the mental part. I've been trying to take my mental part of the game to the next step.”

Such astute focus enables him to be a better leader as well. 

“That is actually helping on my leadership role. I want to be more of a leader this year,” Estimé said. “I'm an older guy. So that's something I pride myself on, being more a leader, lead by example and also being a vocal leader.”

Load Management for All

McCullough intentionally monitors the load of all his running backs, regardless of age or experience levels.

As a precaution, he held Jeremiyah Love out of non-individual drills for over a week.

“They just didn't want me doing a lot of contact since you want to be ready for the season,” Love said. “You don't want to get injured in fall camp, so I wasn't necessarily injured. My hamstring was tweaked, holding me back a little bit, but I'm good now. I'm up to speed with everything.”

He returned to action on Saturday and picked up a big gain on a screen pass. 

McCullough has taken the same level of precaution with other running backs, even if that meant elevating walk-ons to the second team.

With Estimé and Love already out, Gi'Bran Payne rolled his ankle near the start of last Tuesday’s practice. He met with trainers, got his ankle taped and seemed to be walking fine midway through practice. Down to two scholarship running backs, McCullough still gave Payne’s reps to Sam Assaf. 

Like with Estimé, McCullough demands all his running backs take mental reps, whether in the backfield or on the sidelines.

“They ain't got no choice,” McCullough said. “All the guys have to be locked in about what’s going on. Being able to answer questions, being another coach out there, and being able to see things the same way it’s being taught. That comes with the territory. If you’re not a physical participant, you are 100 percent mentally involved.”

Running Back Jobs

McCullough met with the running backs before the season and laid out the strengths of the five players in his room: Estimé, Payne, Love, Devyn Ford and Jadarian Price.

He breaks down the running back position into 10 or so different jobs. Various backs thrive in different situations, whether that be in goalline or short-yardage; on third and long, gadget plays and two-minute drives and for jet sweeps or with a second running back on the field. 

“It’s somewhat well-chronicled that I have different jobs,” McCullough said. “There’s 9-10 starting jobs, so even recruiting, I’m looking for guys that can fit jobs. I don’t look for a guy that has to be perfect in everything. Just like the great Knute Rockne said, continue to polish those weaknesses but build on their strengths, too.

“If I have a guy that’s a great pass protector, but he might be lacking in something else, we’re going to play to that. That’s the beauty of our situation; we take a bunch of guys and make complete pieces of the puzzle by putting those things together.”

For instance, Estimé may be Notre Dame’s lead back, but Payne, perhaps the room’s least heralded member, consistently graded out the highest.

“Gi’Bran is somebody who can run the ball with power and vision,” McCullough said. “He can pass protect really, really good. He can move the chains as a short-yardage guy. He has power because of his compact build and gets behind his pads with great leg drive. There’s a whole lot of things.

By getting all five backs involved in different roles, McCullough can get all of them on the field, let them play to their strengths and do a better job of keeping the room healthy come October and November. 

“It’s very intentional to have guys to come into the situation ready to play a game fresh and to maintain that throughout the year,” McCullough said. “That’s why in the summer and in camp, you put these guys through their paces as far as the expectations, the techniques, and fundamentals, to get them to a high level. We’re going to see how high that level is soon.”

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