Improving, Without the Ball

Tarean Folston's diligence to improve upon every facet of the running back position paid dividends for Notre Dame Saturday vs. Stanford. Increased opportunity -- and chunks of yardage -- should follow hereafter.

Few Irish fans or members of the media predicted a 5-0 start from Notre Dame in 2014.

Fewer still would have projected an unblemished beginning had they been provided with the following combined statistics for the team's trio of running backs:

129 rushes, 524 yards, two touchdowns. 13 receptions, 136 yards, 0 TD.

The numbers don't indicate "undefeated," but Notre Dame's rushing attack has a fourth prong as well, quarterback Everett Golson, and his 46 carries, 146 (net) yards and four touchdowns has greatly aided the team's attack. As pointed out by Irish head coach Brian Kelly, Notre Dame ranks higher statistically than both Florida State and Stanford in rushing yards.

But none of the three teams rank among the nations' top 75 in the category.

"We made a substantial change on the offensive line after three games into the season, and we are still -- we're doing okay," Kelly said. "We're going to get better. We're committed to being better at running the football. We haven't said, the heck with it, we are just going to pitch it around 70 times. There's a commitment to it. We think we can be better at it. We want to be better at running the football. I think that's the most important thing at this point."

The most important thing for the trio, Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, and Greg Bryant, varies in scope. McDaniel is established, trusted, and relatively speaking, productive. Bryant, technically the team's leading rusher with 188 yards at 4.8 yards per attempt (1.3 per carry more than McDaniel), has arguably the most room to grow; inarguably the most ground to make up in an effort to earn Kelly's trust.

"We're really comfortable with Folston and his development," said Kelly. "It's Greg's that we need to continue to move forward. Greg just needs more time to develop, and he will, and he'll be an outstanding player for us. It's just, I think everybody wants it to happen right away.

"He just needs a little bit more time and finishing off runs is probably biggest thing right now. He wants everything to be a big run, and he's got to finish off some runs and he's working on that."

Kelly places Folston (42 carries, 165 yards, 3.9 per rush) in a category closer to McDaniel.

Where fans and media see a lack of production, Kelly sees accomplishment that goes beyond the stat sheet.

"He made two outstanding blocks," said Kelly of Folston's key contributions vs. Stanford, a game in which he carried just three times for 14 yards, adding a 6-yard pass reception. "I know you want me to talk about his ability to go down the field, and he is a very instinctive runner; he's a smooth cutter. But he does a lot of really good things.

"We ran a boot into the boundary where we hit a comeback route to Chris Brown (20-yard gain). On the back side of that, Tarean Folston made an incredible block off a blitzing safety. He does little things sometimes that don't show up in the stat sheet that as coaches, we really appreciate. 

"He really is an accomplished player, and he's less about potential and he's more in that production (category)."

Focused Improvement

Kelly's comments regarding Folston's improvement as a blocker are telling -- the sophomore offered the oft-overlooked skill set as one in which he's diligently worked to improve.

"I've worked on my blitz pickup and I'll continue to work on my blitz pickup," said Folston prior to a Sept. 27 contest against Syracuse, a blitz-heavy defense. "The challenge is reading a defense, finding a guy to pick up and knowing where your O-Line is going to be and your help."

In addition to Folston's aforementioned block that afforded Golson time for a big play, the Cocoa (Fla.) product unleashed a lead block to spring McDaniel for five yards over the right side. Due to the impact of the collision, Folston got up slowly, a rarity for the excitable runner.

"I like to play with energy," said Folston. "Even if I make a two-yard run, I'm going to get up like I just scored a touchdown."

Too many two-yard runs have littered the resumes of Irish runners this fall -- a whopping 43 of the trio's 129 combined attempts have been limited to two yards or fewer.

While fans opine that the three-player rotation fails to allow any member of the trio to find a rhythm, Folston instead focuses on making the most of each opportunity.

"It doesn't matter the distribution or how we rotate," said Folston, normally the second 'back to enter the contest. "It's getting touches and doing your job when you're in for everyone else. That's coach's decision. I just go play hard when I get a chance."

Folston's chances diminished vs. the Cardinal in part because of his efforts to be an all-around player. His physical blocks took a toll.

"He was nicked up a little bit (thigh), and so we kind of pulled back a little bit from him participating," said Kell. "He felt much better today, moved around earlier with our training staff.  We expect him to be good to go and get back up in the carries on Saturday."

Soft-spoken and seemingly laid-back outside the lines, Folston noted he's not necessarily a shrinking violet when he hits the football field.

"I'm not going to say I talk a lot of crap during the game," he offered with a smile, "But I'm going to let you know I'm there."

The Irish running game might benefit if Folston's there a bit more often.


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