Ask Autry Denson about wearing the Notre Dame gear and representing his alma mater as a member of the Irish coaching staff and the smile befitting a Sunshine State product lights up the room.
A split second is all the time Denson allows himself to bask in the glow of returning to Notre Dame. There is work to be done, and with Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant headlining the small but mighty running back corps, Denson won’t allow himself to spend more than a snippet of time patting himself on the back.
“Coaching is just like being a player,” said Denson, who set the Notre Dame rushing record when he totaled 4,318 yards and 43 rushing touchdowns from 1995-98. “The minute you stop to admire, you’re going to have a problem.”
Denson, who joined Brian Kelly’s staff as running backs coach after stints at Bethune-Cookman, Miami (Ohio) and a brief time at South Florida, has more important things on his mind.
One, getting his wife, Elaine, and their four children moved to South Bend. Check.
Two, getting Folston, Bryant and C.J. Prosise – who doubles as a slot receiver – to the highest level of their abilities, which is high.
“You’re making sure you’re pushing those guys, but at the same time, you’re being smart from a rep distribution standpoint so they have time to recover and you’re not running them into the ground,” Denson said.
Reinforcements are coming this summer when Dexter Williams and Josh Adams add to the running back equation. Prosise – who shows a lot of natural running back skills – will return to playing more receiver than running back this fall, teaming with Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter, Jr. at the Z/slot receiver.
In the meantime, with half of spring practice complete, Denson is trying to maximize his time with the running backs, particularly Folston and Bryant who will handle the bulk of the load this fall.
Other than evaluating the nuances of certain offerings in the Irish playbook, Denson spent very little time watching tape from the 2014 season involving Folston and Bryant. He knew he would see all he needed to see on the spring practice field.
“He’s doing everything well, but more importantly, he’s leading,” said Denson of Folston, who rushed for 889 yards, a 5.1-yard average and six touchdowns in ‘14. “He’s played the most in the room, so he’s bringing other guys along with him. He’s taking coaching well.
“For any back that’s been playing, his next part is the mental part of the game, getting the concepts and being another quarterback on the field. That’s when the game really starts to slow down.”
The key with Folston is getting him to hit the ground running from the start of the season, something that has taken some coercion each of the last two seasons as he adapted to the college game.
With Bryant, it’s maximizing the immense ability/potential of the five-star prospect out of Delray Beach, Fla.
“Finish, going out and playing hard,” said Denson, summarizing Bryant’s decree for the spring after rushing for 289 yards, a 5.4-yard average and three scores during his red-shirt freshman season in ’14.
“I knew Greg from back home, so I already had a good idea of him. He’s really strong and even more explosive than I thought. It had been a couple years since I’d seen Greg, and he really has matured physically. He’s eager to learn.”
So how does Bryant narrow the gap between him and Folston so he can truly share the job as opposed to merely subbing for him?
“Just be Greg,” Denson said. “Do what we ask him to do and be consistent. He’s doing a great job. He has a great work ethic. I don’t think you can place a ceiling on anybody that’s willing to work.”
In addition to his 29 receptions for 516 yards and two touchdowns, including a 78-yarder against Navy, Prosise also was impressive carrying the football. He had just 10 touches in the running game, and on most of those occasions, he received the football running laterally to the line of scrimmage.
“I want to train him to do it all,” said Denson of Prosise, whose 10 rushes netted 126 yards, including a 50-yard score in the Music City Bowl against LSU.
“We don’t know exactly where we’re going to need him at, so when he’s in my room, I’m training him like anybody else. I want to train him to be the best and the most all-round back that he can be.”
On one hand, Prosise is learning from Denson and the running backs because the position is new to him. Prosise has something to offer the running backs in return.
“That’s the reason you try to put as many good bodies in a room,” Denson said. “You want to surround yourself with other good players because you will borrow and take for each other’s games.”
Denson likes what he’s seen of his running backs as receivers.
“I was pleasantly surprised because I don’t think we caught a ton of balls last year,” said Denson, referring to the 32 receptions for 316 yards by Folston, Bryant and Cam McDaniel.
“They all have good hands and are very comfortable running routes. The amount of teaching I’ve had to do there has been more technical. They have a very natural ability to catch the ball. They don’t fight the ball. I was pleasantly surprised across the board.”
Just how much the running game is emphasized in 2015 with new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and a mostly veteran offensive line returning remains to be seen. Let the record show, however, that the enthusiastic Denson will make sure the running back corps holds up its end of the bargain.
“We’ve got to seize the opportunity,” Denson said. “We have to go out like that’s the only play that matters.
“We need everybody in that room and we’ve got to be ready when our number is called. They’re really a tight-knit unit and coming out every day to take advantage of every opportunity they’re getting.”
In the meantime, Denson will keep his focus on the job at hand and wait until a more appropriate time to bask in the turn to his alma mater.
“I’m here to do a job,” Denson said. “Keep pushing, keep pushing, stay ahead.
“I haven’t had time, nor do I want to have time, to sit back. We’ll take care of all of that later.”