Entering spring ball 2015, Notre Dame’s offensive backfield appeared to include one major question mark and one near certainty.
The question was which quarterback would trigger the attack – that answer won’t be available until at least late May, perhaps late August.
The perceived certainty was that junior Tarean Folston ranked a shade ahead of his competitors as the No. 1 runner, with classmate Greg Bryant poised to make a leap forward, and senior slot receiver C.J. Prosise in training to offer a potential change-of-pace.
Turns out it’s a touch more complicated. And in this case, it’s a quandary that could augment the Irish offense.
“I want guys competing,” said Kelly of his goal at the position this summer and through August camp. “If you watch C.J. Prosise, if I were those two guys (Bryant and Folston), I'd feel like I'd better be careful. He has elite speed at that position. I just want to create more competition. We have some freshmen coming in the fall, just trying to create competition and I think that brings out the best in all those guys.”
Folston’s progress hasn’t stunted, but the junior-to-be still lacks a differentiating factor Kelly looks for among his top players: consistency in approach as much as production.
“I think he's had a good spring. I think it's like anything else: he needs to continue to work on consistency every day,” Kelly said. “I think he's worked hard on blocking, pass protection, catching the football. There are some things we want to work on in terms of practice, getting after it a little bit more, more tenacity. All-in-all it's been a good spring for him.”
Folston’s production in the final eight outings of the 2014 season far exceeded his output during the year’s opening five games. After managing a combined 142 yards vs. Rice, Michigan, Purdue, Syracuse, and Stanford, Folston erupted for 724 rushing yards to conclude the season, scoring seven touchdowns including one as an outlet receiver.
After a clunky job share with Bryant and senior Cam McDaniel early, Folston became the backfield’s main man as the season progressed, leading the Irish in rushing attempts in six of the last eight outings (ASU and USC the exceptions).
But Folston was removed from a Nov. 8 loss at Arizona State for poor efforts in pass protection. After challenged by Kelly thereafter, it’s an element of his game he has since worked on diligently, noting pass protection as his greatest area of improvement this spring.
“I’ve done a better job with hand placement. I still have to get that striking component,” said Folston. “(This summer) I want to work on my body composition: my wind, body fat, all those little things that count in the long run.
“It’s something (he needs) for a long season, not because I need it for the end of a 10-play drive or anything like that. My body took a beating last year, I definitely noticed it, but that’s what this rotation in the running back room is for, so we can take less of it next year.”
His head coach sees a former prospect that’s grown across the board, especially physically.
“He's so much physically ahead of where he was as a freshman,” said Kelly. “He's a physically strong player. He's smart. He's a better pass-blocker, catches the football. I just wish once in awhile -- sometimes we have to challenge him a little bit. But that's our job. That's not his job sometimes. I'd like to see more energy but we're doing so much with them (three scholarship runners on the spring roster).
“That's why I can't wait until the fall, we'll have two more freshman running backs (Dexter Williams and Josh Adams). “We'll get some competition in there. I like what he's doing. This isn't a shot across his bow to play better. He's done everything we've asked him to do. But you'd like to have two or three more 'backs competing so you add a little competition every day.”
At present, a cozy running backs meeting room has afforded the Folston/Bryant/Prosise triumvirate a chance to grow.
“As a unit we’re doing a great job punching the ball vertically before making moves on defenders in the open field,” said Folston when asked for a unit-wide improvement this spring. “And we feel like we can catch routes out of the backfield, split-out. So with that opportunity we have to take advantage of it.”
“We want to be able to do it all.”