Back Where He Belongs

Irish running back legend Autry Denson returns to the place that molded him to date.

One of Notre Dame's favorite sons has returned home, and newly minted Irish running backs coach Autry Denson has a unique sales pitch he's ready to offer future pupils -- on campus, incoming, and prospective alike.

The truth.

"I've never been a seller," said Denson, the program's all-time leading rusher, officially 4,318 yards. "I believe you can recruit young people with the truth and integrity. So I'm always going to tell the truth. The bonus for me is that I'm living it.

"It's simple. Notre Dame is a lifetime decision. If you want to know, ask me."

Denson's sales pitch to fellow Floridians -- his chief focus among myriad recruiting responsibilities -- will be one of tough love. It worked on him and he believes it will work on those that are the right fit for Notre Dame.

"In particular the state of Florida, you get recruited to go to little leagues. You get recruited to go to high school. From a selling standpoint, they aren't wowed by that," he said. "They see right through it. My character won't allow me to sell you on something.

"I'll tell a young man that's going to play running back, 'Playing for me is going to be the hardest thing that you ever do.' I put a lot into my players so I hold them accountable. The Bible says to whom much is given much is required. I'm going to hold them to a high standard.

"That being said, it'll be the most fun he ever has. It'll be everything he's looking for and we'll reach his goals on and off the field. But I don't want a young man that's not signing up for that. In some way I'm trying to de-recruit them at that point. I want to beat them so much with the truth that he's looking forward to it being tougher.

"To tell him anything other than the truth, he'd be signing up for something that's not real, and I wouldn't be able to coach him. I'd have to baby him rather than mentor him."

STUFF OF LEGENDS
Formerly the running backs coach at Bethune Cookman (2011-13) and last season in the same position under former Notre Dame assistant Chuck Martin at Miami, Ohio, Denson's first major program coaching gig affords him all of two scholarship running backs for spring session development.

Tarean Folston recognized the Irish legend upon site in their initial meeting -- fellow Floridian Greg Bryant was known to Denson all-too-well prior.

"When I was the high school coach at Pope John Paul (Boca Raton, Fla.), they hung like 70 on me," said Denson of Bryant and his father, Greg Sr., an American Heritage High School assistant coach. "So I got to know him in person, the football side of Greg Bryant, very early in my coaching career.

"Meeting with them, they're excited, I'm excited. It was humbling for me to actually shake hands with Tarean and have him do a double take. That was humbling for me, as young as they are, they still remember guys like myself."

The trio's working relationship will be intimate until incoming freshmen Dexter Williams and Josh Adams join the fray in late June.

Roll Call in March and April won't take long in the running backs room.

"They'll get a lot of reps," he noted of the junior tandem. "The way you get better is, you play more football, you become a better football player. We'll get a chance to learn each other on and off the field, that's what spring is for."

While Denson offers harsh truths on the recruiting trail, there's a positive vibe to his coaching method on campus.

"I'm an encourager. I don't yell, I don't curse, that's not who I am," said Denson. "I believe in being firm. Demanding but definitely not demeaning. I've appreciated the coaches I've coached for, they've allowed me to coach to my personality. That's just who I am.

"My confidence comes from my preparation. That's how I was as a player, that's how I am as a man. I'm going to work my butt off and I expect good things to happen. I don't expect anything other than success. When things don't go well, it's all about getting it right."

For Denson, getting it right means being far more than good. In fact, "good" is a wholly unacceptable end goal.

"I have the benefit of playing the position that I coach, and there's a very fine line between a good 'back and a great 'back," he said. "What I explained to them when I first talked to them, 'Listen, if you want to be a good 'back, you might want to transfer. I'm not looking to coach a good 'back. I'm not even looking to coach a great 'back. I want to coach a legendary 'back.

"They have the physical part," he continued, adding that Folston and Bryant are "some grown men."

"It's the mental aspect that allows you to be consistent, which allows you to be legendary. It's more the mental maturation, learning schemes so you can be that coach on the field, and now the game slows down for you -- and you speed up."

AN EASY DECISION
Less than two months ago, Denson accepted a position as running backs coach at South Florida, his wife Elaine's alma mater.

But the move away from sunny South Florida to Denson's hallowed collegiate grounds took no cajoling from husband to wife. (Denson first dated his wife in high school.)

"Now you have to realize, I'm a good parent," Denson said tongue-in-cheek. "So my kids have been brain-washed from Day One. My daughters, at the hospital, took their pictures in their Notre Dame stuff. The expectation has always been Notre Dame, Notre Dame."

Notre Dame became a possibility -- far ahead of schedule if only Denson's coaching resume is taken into account -- because of his one-on-one interview with head coach Brian Kelly.

"Autry…because of his background here as the all-time leading rusher, and quite frankly his background as a Notre Dame student-athlete, gave him a chance at an interview," said Kelly. "I really didn't think I was going to hire him, quite honestly, until he interviewed. 

"He blew me away in the interview. His attention to detail at the running back position, techniques, how he was teaching the running backs, the depth and knowledge at the position both in the run game and the pass game. His philosophy matched mine in terms of development of the student-athlete both on and off the field.

"We had a number of candidates for this position, great candidates throughout the country. I will tell you that we had no shortage of some of the best in the country…We called them up and said that we found our running back coach in Autry Denson."

For now it seems the perfect match. The school's most productive all-time rusher back where he started. Back where he began to change.

"I made that decision when I was 18 years old to come here," said Denson. "I've lived that decision.

"I love the fact that I'm able to marry my passions: my passion for young people, my passion for Christ, and man my passion for Notre Dame. That's a good deal."

Better than good, perhaps.


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