Autry Denson has never met a bend in the road that he didn’t cherish. Change is just another challenge to do God’s work, which, in the college coaching profession, is putting every ounce of energy and love into maximizing the opportunities with the young men he instructs.
After a successful three-year stint at Bethune-Cookman, and then a year with former Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin at Miami (Ohio), Denson, 38, Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher with 4, 318 yards and 43 rushing touchdowns, is the new running backs coach for Willie Taggart and the South Florida Bulls.
Denson replaces Telly Lockette, who took a similar position at Oregon State.
“It’s a great opportunity for me and my family,” Denson said. “I’m excited about the opportunity to change lives in Tampa. It’s a platform. I’m just thankful and humbled that God is using me to do what we do.”
Denson’s road to the American Athletic Conference – where the Bulls finished 4-8, 3-5 as the seventh-place team in 2014 – has been relatively quick. He entered coaching in 2010 at Pope John Paul II High School in Boca Raton.
A Lauderhill, Fla., product in south Florida and a former seventh-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Denson moved up to the college coaching ranks in 2011 at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach.
As running backs coach for the Wildcats, Denson’s troops averaged 259.3 yards rushing per game in 2011, which was fifth overall in the FCS. In 2012, Isidore Jackson became Bethune-Cookman’s first 1,000-yard rusher in 15 seasons. In 2013, the Wildcats rushed for nearly 2,200 yards and made the playoffs.
It was tougher sledding at Miami (Ohio) where Martin and his staff took over a program that did not win a game in 2013 and entered the 2014 season with 16 straight losses.
The RedHawks narrowed the gap considerably, winning twice and losing seven games by 10 points or less, although the rushing attack struggled to less than 100 yards rushing per game and the third fewest rushing attempts in the FBS.
“It was tough (to leave) because forget the fact that he’s a very knowledgeable coach; he’s just a great guy,” said Denson of Martin. “Chuck is the man. We’ll continue to talk. He never ceased to amaze me with the way he gave me advice. Chuck is a great man.”
Taggart, who is the same age as Denson and a Bradenton, Fla., product, was himself a running backs coach at Stanford (2007-09) before landing the head-coaching job at Western Kentucky, which led him to South Florida after a three-year stint with the Hilltoppers.
Taggart and the Bulls went 2-10 (3-6) in 2013 and are now 6-18 overall and 5-11 in AAC play.
“Just to get the opportunity to interview with (Taggart) was an honor, and then getting a chance to come here is great,” said Denson, who will recruit Dade and Polk counties for the Bulls.
“Coach T has a plan, a vision for the program. I feel like he’s somebody I can learn from and help him continue to keep this thing moving in the right direction.”
While Denson admits being back at his old stomping grounds feels like the right fit, he’s comfortable wherever he and his family – wife Elaine and four children Ashley, Autry III, Elijah and Asia – end up.
Denson is looking forward to working with several young Bulls running backs, including AAC newcomer of the year Marlon Mack, who rushed for 1,041 yards (5.2-yard average) and nine touchdowns in ’14.
“Coach them up to not just be satisfied being good or even being great. I’m trying to coach them to be legendary,” said Denson of his approach. “That’s the way we practice. More than anything, leading by example and holistically developing these guys, which is in my formula for success.”
Denson keeps those who helped him be his best along the way at the forefront of his coaching style.
“That’s what Lou Holtz did for me,” Denson said. “That’s what (ND running back coaches) Desmond Robinson and Early Mosley did for me. That’s what my high school coach did for me. It came natural because I had so many people pour that into me. Urban Meyer, Charlie Strong…I don’t know any other way to do it because that’s what they did for me. I’m here because somebody else took the time to care.
“My guys will know I love ‘em, so they play not to let me down. To get them to do that stuff is who I am, but I can’t take credit for it.”
Denson was impressed with the way Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes dismantled Oregon in the national championship game.
“People take shots at (him), but what they don’t realize is the reason why Coach Meyer always has a chance to win,” Denson said. “It’s because his players aren’t going to run through one brick wall for him; they’re going to run through 10 brick walls for him because that’s who he is and that’s how he inspires the people around him.
“Guys want to play for Coach Meyer. He gives so much of himself that he doesn’t have any limits. I’m always trying to make sure he’s taking care of himself because he’s so selfless that that’s also his Achilles Heel.”
Denson was just as impressed with his alma mater’s 31-28 victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl.
“More than anything, it was overcoming adversity,” Denson said. “There was no flinching. As a fan, that’s all you want to see. You want to see guys compete at the highest level and then see what happens.
“Sometimes you’re going to give everything you have and it’s not going to work out. But the key is guys competing, and for me, as an alumnus, it starts with guys going out and competing.”