Cam McDaniel has rushed for 417 yards for a 4.6-yard average this season. (Michael Hickey / Getty Images)
South Bend, Ind. — Notre Dame fans know Cam McDaniel as the gritty running back the Fighting Irish turn to when the going gets tough.
Others know him as the hunky football player whose good looks sent a photo viral and had female hosts of NBC’s “Today” show swooning over him.
The 5-10, 207-pound junior from Coppell, Texas, is clearly more comfortable carrying the ball, turning red talking about his TV appearance. He looks like a model in the photo, biceps flexing as he holds the ball, looking straight at the camera with the hint of a grin with USC defenders around his legs.
Tight end Troy Niklas joined reporters this week in asking McDaniel about the photo.
“What exactly do you call the look, and how long have you been working on it?” Niklas asked.
“Well, people are starting to call it ‘Blue Steel,’” McDaniel joked, a reference to a pose used by Ben Stiller’s character in the fashion model spoof film “Zoolander.”
Before that moment of celebrity, McDaniel was primarily known as the back coaches turn to when they are trying to ice a victory. He ran the ball on 10 of the final 11 plays against Purdue to run out the clock in a 31-24 victory. Against Michigan State he was given the ball on 12 of the final 16 plays, scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a 7-yard run. He was handed the ball on seven of the last nine plays as the Irish held on for a 37-34 win against Arizona State. Against USC, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly even went back to McDaniel even after a critical fourth-quarter fumble.
“We trust him,” Kelly said.
McDaniel is enjoying his role as Notre Dame’s go-to guy as the Irish (6-2) prepare to face Navy (4-3) on Saturday.
“I like to be the guy that people depend on. I want to be the guy that in high-pressure situations that they say, ‘Hey, just give that guy the ball and it’s going to be all right,’” McDaniel said.
The competition at running back this season was expected to be between speedy George Atkinson III and elusive Amir Carlisle, a transfer from USC who sat out last season with an ankle injury. McDaniel, who entered the season with 26 career carries over two seasons, was expected to play a supporting role. But McDaniel leads the teams in carries and yards with 417 yards on 91 carries.
McDaniel has impressed Irish coaches with his tenaciousness, which was on display against Purdue when he ripped the ball out of Purdue cornerback Antoine Lewis’ hands after an apparent interception, returned to the game after getting four stitches after a hit to the head when his helmet popped off and made a touchdown-saving tackle on a kickoff.
Like all of the Notre Dame backs, McDaniel would prefer to be the No. 1 back. But he’s OK waiting for his opportunities.
“I’ve worked a long time to be a running back at this level. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. So I know whenever I get my number called I’m going to get the job done,” McDaniel said.
Kelly likes McDaniel’s confidence, talking about how McDaniel told him during a recruiting trip that his goal was to win a Heisman Trophy. It still is. McDaniel’s room is decorated with Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winners to remind him, as well as some other famous No. 33s, including Pittsburgh’s Tony Dorsett and USC’s Marcus Allen.
“Cam is extremely driven and he has a strong belief system,” Kelly said.
McDaniel also has a knack of finding his way into the spotlight. The viral photo of him wasn’t the first time he gained fame. He also is known for a video taken by ESPN during a preseason practice when backs were getting ready to run through a contraption known as the gauntlet, a device aimed at working on ball security. McDaniel went first, running full speed when he was stopped dead in his tracks when he hit the gauntlet.
“We were all just kind of tired, I guess, and nobody realized it was the wrong way,” McDaniel said.
Kelly was running the drill that day and couldn’t believe it.
“You guys are freaking killing me. … Get on that side,” he yelled.
McDaniel is hoping he begins making headlines for his play more than his looks and his gaffes.
“I would like to be noticed for my performance on the field,” he said.
As a backup, though, he always has his “Blue Steel” look to fall back on.