NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Ask Brian Kelly about Amir Carlisle. The first mention of the sophomore running back brings one word to the Notre Dame head coach's lips - "burst". That burst helped Carlisle score 56 rushing touchdowns in his last two high school seasons and it has the Notre Dame coaching staff's attention now.
"He's got a gear," Kelly said after watching Carlisle at practice this week. "He's got a high level where he's really gonna be able to help us."
A personal season of frustration for Carlisle followed him to South Bend when he transferred from USC just over a year ago. He was nagged by injuries during his lone season with the Trojans and suffered a broken ankle prior to last year's spring practice. Nerve damage followed and Carlisle was forced to be a spectator during Notre Dame's run to the BCS Championship Game.
"It was disappointing," Carlisle said of watching his team's 12-0 regular season from the sideline. "I transferred and got the waiver. I was ecstatic and I couldn't wait to get out on the field, but to have my dreams kind of put on pause was disappointing. But to see the season the team had was wonderful to be a part of even though I wasn't out on the field.
"It was a dream-type season and to be there each and every step of the way was a dream. To actually be on the sideline in the national championship game and to take part in it even though I wasn't playing was a great experience."
Carlisle played in eight games for Southern Cal as a true freshman in 2011. He totaled 19 carries for 118 yards (6.2) along with seven receptions for 41 yards. He showed a glimpse of his burst in a Trojan uniform and is beginning to rediscover that form wearing blue and gold for the Irish.
"It's back," Carlisle promised of his burst. "Now it's just a matter of getting the pads on and going out there and playing football like it's supposed to be played."
"I just have to get used to cutting how I used to," he said of getting back on the field. "My ankle is not limiting me in any way, so I feel one hundred percent."
Despite the previous ailments, Carlisle says he is all the way back to "100-percent" physically now. He has worked hard with his teammate since winter conditioning began two months ago. Being out of the game for a season allowed Carlisle to recover physically, but it did allow its share of rust to set in. The "rhythm and tempo" are coming back to him now as he gets back into live action. He says he first began to feel like he was back to his old self about a month ago.
"I just got a chance to really start running routes again and start doing speed training," said Carlisle of getting back to form. "I really think the winter workouts really helped me get my conditioning back up and get my running rhythm back."
Fighting Irish running backs coach Tony Alford recruited Carlisle out of Kings Academy High School in Northern California. Alford is now finally seeing the burst Carlisle displayed while rushing for more than 4,100 yards in 2009 and 2010.
"This is the burst I'm finally seeing that he had when he first got here before his injury," Alford said of Carlisle. "It's good to have him back, but I never saw this after the injury."
"Just the initial burst and being able to start and stop and being able to accelerate," Alford continued. "(He does it) from a standstill position and then turns and makes a burst off of a cut."
The type cast for the 5'10,185 pound Carlisle would be to put him in the Theo Riddick "hybrid" role as both runner and pass catcher. Riddick ran for 917 yards and had 36 receptions for 370 more yards last year. Carlisle's stature is close to Riddick's 5'11, 200 pound frame, and Alford likes the sophomore's pas catching ability.
"He's got really good hands," Alford complimented of Carlisle. "He catches the ball very softly in his hands."
"I think he's got the ability to make some guys miss in space," Alford continued. "When he was at USC and even when we were recruiting him he had the ability to do that, so I'm going to assume he still has that ability. He's not the biggest guy in the world, we know that, but he's still going to be able to make plays in space."
Kelly says Carlisle's ability as a receiver makes him an option to be on the field at the same time as another running back, and that may very well happen this spring and next season. Alford agrees, but he will still continue to push Carlisle to be the best all-around back he can be - which is the coach's goal for every back on the team.
"If a guy's not we'll tailor things for him that lend to his skill set," said Alford. "You want all your players to be as complete guys as they can possibly be. To say the guy's small and be an inside the tackles runner - that's asinine."
Carlisle is marching in step with Alford's goal for him this spring, saying he wants to work on everything.
"Coach Alford really stresses being a complete back," Carlisle commented. "Being able to block, being able to run between the tackles, being able to run outside, (and) being able to catch the ball. Each and every day is a learning opportunity and it's an opportunity to get better at all facets of the game."
With Riddick and Cierre Wood both gone, George Atkinson is now the most experienced back on the Irish roster. The junior to be has a mere 388 career rushing yards to his credit, leaving the door for Carlisle's future role on the team.
"To be honest I don't know," Carlisle said honestly of what he thinks his role might be next fall. "I pride myself on being versatile and trying to do as many things as possible. I'm going to leave the decision up to the coaches where they put me, but I'm going to make sure to give the coaches as many options to put me on the field as they can."
Alford already knows what kind of receiver Carlisle is, but he has something else he is looking for this spring that may go a long way toward determining just how extensive Carlisle's role is next season.
"I'm anxious to see how physical he's going to be in close quarters," Alford said. "Is he gonna take on a linebacker when he gets to the sideline instead of running out of bounds? (Will he) turn north and south and go put his hat on somebody and get a couple extra yards on the sideline?"
Alford used Theo Riddick's tough running up the middle last season as an example of a player without large girth who broke the mold running between the tackles.
"It's a great opportunity," Carlisle said of the chance he has this spring. "Last year, with Theo and Cierre, even though I wasn't out there playing, they really brought me under their wing and taught me a lot. I was able to watch them and how they conducted themselves each and every day as professionals - how they watched film and worked hard in practice and how it carried over to the game. That was a learning opportunity for me and it's something I'll carry over to this season."
Carlisle had Notre Dame on his radar during his high school recruitment, but ultimately chose USC to stay close to his family. His father, Duane Carlisle, was hired as Purdue's director of sports performance two years ago, and the younger Carlisle decided Notre Dame made more sense because of the new proximity to his dad.
"When my family moved out here to Indiana it just seemed right," Carlisle said. "It was a family decision. I put a lot of prayer into it and it's been a great decision."