In just one year, senior running back Cierre Wood went from 5,641 rushing yards and 71 touchdowns in high school to zero his freshman year. Zero yards, zero touchdowns and zero playing time.
“I was thinking about [transferring after freshman year],” Wood said. “I didn’t like the position I was in and stuff like that. But [running backs] coach [Tony] Alford kept me grinding the whole time I’ve been here along with a couple of my teammates. And we decided we were going to make it work and found a way to make it happen.”
Recruited by former Irish coach Charlie Weis, Wood was a highly regarded four-star recruit, also receiving offers from Auburn, Florida and USC. Coming from all the attention to none at all was a definite challenge, combined with the adjustment to the frigid weather.
“In the beginning it was terrible, because of the fact that it was so cold,” he said. “But once you’ve been out here for a long time, you begin to adapt. And once I got that, it felt easier at that point.”
Wood has his sights set on something beyond his collegiate career, 2,275 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns and three seasons later.
“I can’t really say it, but it has to do with the [NFL],” Wood said. “If they give me good news, I might skedaddle. It all depends, but that is what it will come down to. But I’m not really worried about that.”
West Coast bias
When it comes down to home, the Oxnard, Calif., native had only one thing to say.
“West Coast, best coast, West Coast is the best coast,” Wood said.
Wood started his spectacular high school career in Long Beach, Calif., at Long Beach Poly, the same school that produced NFL talents DeSean Jackson, Marcedes Lewis and Willie McGinest. But Wood transferred before his sophomore year to Santa Clara High School, where he rushed for 2,612 yards and 34 touchdowns in his junior year alone.
And even though he is in his fourth year away from home, Wood said he still misses the luxuries of home.
“I miss everything. In-N-Out [Burger]. Going to the beach, all the clubs in Hollywood. Going shopping,” Wood said. “Everything in California is just better than any other place in the world. There is something to do at all times. You’ll never be bored. You can go outside, literally walk outside your door, and something is bound to happen. I don’t think it’s the same with the Midwest or the East.”
Although some things could not come to South Bend with him, Wood said he brought the mentality of his state with him, and it has translated in between the tackles as well.
“Just the fact that in California, people don’t really trip out about a lot of stuff,” Wood said. “Everybody’s calm, everybody’s collected. My demeanor is just real cool. When things go down, a lot of people always ask me why I am so nonchalant about stuff. But I just can’t help it. Even when I’m mad, I don’t really trip out about it. That’s just how I roll.”
No matter wherever his life takes him, Wood said one thing will remain constant.
“[I’m a California boy] through and through. It doesn’t matter where [I live].”
Coming from high school to college, Wood worked on refining his raw athleticism and speed into a lethal combination of agility and power.
“At the beginning it was all finesse, but I had to learn how to become a complete back,” Wood said. “If I had to go in between the tackles, I would be able to do it. Or I could be the speedy guy on the outside. Once I got here I learned how to do it.
“That’s how it is in the [NFL]. That’s part of why we are here. We are not doing this for nothing. The backs in the league now are all well-rounded. There are some that are finesse and make it work. But at some point you have to have the physicality to run up the middle. I figured I should get a start on that early rather than later.”
The senior gained 23 pounds between the summer of his freshman year and his senior year, putting in the work during and after practice. He even went as far as to ask senior linebacker Manti Te’o to hit and tackle him repeatedly so the 6-foot, 215-pound back could improve his toughness and pass blocking.
“I really wasn’t good at pass blocking at the beginning, so [Te’o] is a good pass rusher,” he said. “When I got here, we had a bunch of big dudes like [linebackers] Kerry Neal and Brian Smith. So what I would do is have them line up coming off the edge and do their best move, whether it be a bull rush or whatever. That’s what made me get better.”
Last season, Wood’s hard work paid off, becoming just the 11th player in Notre Dame history to surpass the 1,000-yard rushing mark, highlighted by a career high 191 yards on 20 carries against Purdue on Oct. 1, 2011. Despite missing the first two games of the 2012 season for violating team rules, Wood has rushed for 570 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 6.3 yards per carry.
But one play this season still has the running back fuming: a goal-line fumble in the second overtime against Pittsburgh on Nov. 3.
“I don’t care what anyone says, I know I [scored],” Wood said. “The ball crossed the plane, but it is what it is. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. I am just happy we won the game. My teammates kept me up. And we are still undefeated. I don’t care what people say about the game, we still won and that still counts.
“I was kind of upset about it, but you have to snap out of it and step right back.”
In his Notre Dame career, Wood has recorded four two-touchdown performances, with the latest coming in a 41-3 win over Miami on Oct. 6. But he has yet to score three touchdowns in a single game.
“I can do it,” he said. ”If they need me to, I could get five. I know I can get multiple. If I get the ball out there, I know it can happen.”
In his four years at Notre Dame, Wood has had plenty of time to develop a reputation as a lovable jokester within the Irish locker room, where no one is safe from a verbal onslaught.
“They all have nicknames. Chocolate drop [Louis Nix]. [Robby Toma] is Tommy from ‘The Rugrats.’ We all have nicknames,” Wood said. “[Being a jokester] is just how I am. Being from California, everyone just makes fun of each other. I was born and raised like that, so I might as well bring it here.”
But Wood said he has developed a special bond and target for his barbs in his roommates and fellow four-star recruits from the class of 2009: defensive tackle Tyler Stockton and running back Theo Riddick.
“We are around each other as often as possible,” he said. “I live with Theo, so I see him every day. So being around him everyday, we can pick up on each other’s tendencies and learn a lot more from each other.”
Always trying to one-up the same back he shares carries and a house with, Riddick interrupted Wood and jokingly gave his take on his fellow senior.
“If you ask him if he can paint, he will say he’s the best painter. If you ask him ‘Can you play tennis?’ He will say he is the next Serena [Williams],” Riddick said. “He thinks he is the best at everything. Let me correct that: I’m the best. Don’t let anybody else tell you different.”
For Wood, going to school more than 2,000 miles away from home has been a journey mixed with hardships, roadblocks and change. But it has also been one mixed with diligence, resolve and camaraderie — something Wood said he will never forget.
“There are a lot of experiences basically,” he said. “From coming out of the tunnel to going to class or playing on the field, I’ll take in everything I’ve been through since I’ve been here.”