Brian Kelly has spent the past two seasons talking about Tarean Folston growing into a complete back. Now’s the time for the junior to make that jump, taking his game from usually good to regularly great.
Folston led Notre Dame with 175 carries for 889 yards and six touchdowns last season and probably would have done the same as a freshman if not for a preseason groin injury and a September hamstring tweak. Those injuries basically cut Folston’s freshman year in half, but he still posted 415 yards in the final six games.
How high can Folston go this fall? Irish Illustrated’s A-to-Z series continues with a former four-star prospect primed for a 1,000-yard season behind Notre Dame’s powerhouse offensive line, even with rushing alternatives in the backfield.
Folston plows past 1,000 yards and hits double-digit touchdowns while proving himself to be an NFL talent, potentially making a draft jump. Folston should be Kelly’s best back, eclipsing Cierre Wood’s 1,102-yard season of 2011. Folston’s high end is in line with Autry Denson or Darius Walker, with Julius Jones’ senior season as good as it could get for the Irish junior. Jones went out with 1,341 yards and 10 touchdowns on his way to becoming a second round pick. Could Folston put up those numbers with Malik Zaire, Greg Bryant and C.J. Prosise taking carries? Remember Jones did it with Ryan Grant in the same backfield.
Assuming Folston avoids injury, the worst case is Notre Dame reverts back to a finesse offense that passes first, second and third. Folston is only a decent receiver and a mediocre blocker. He averages about one reception per game and got pulled at Arizona State because he couldn’t pick up the blitz. If there’s a legitimate worst-case scenario for Folston, it’s probably that his game doesn’t progress as a receiver and blocker. There’s no going back with Folston as a rusher, whose natural talent makes him the starter entering camp.
There’s no perfect comparison during the past 20 years, but Julius Jones comes close. Folston has rushed for 1,359 yards and nine touchdowns during his first couple seasons, roughly doubling his production from his freshman to sophomore years. Jones rushed for 1,032 yards and 10 touchdowns his first two seasons, also nearly doubling his yardage year over year. He went from 375 yards as a freshman to 657 yards as a sophomore. Both rushed for 140 yards as a freshman against Navy.
Folston was a consensus four-star prospect across all recruiting services and ranked anywhere from No. 66 overall (ESPN) to No. 198 (Scout). Two years into his college career Folston has played at both ends of that rankings spectrum. He’s clearly a four-star talent considering he won the starting job as a freshman and likely projects into the NFL. Of the 23 backs ranked ahead of Folston on Scout coming out of high school, the junior has out-gained 20 of them for his career. The only exceptions are Alex Collins (Arkansas), Derrick Henry (Alabama) and Ezekiel Elliott (Ohio State).
Folston delivered in Notre Dame’s signature loss at Florida State last season, rushing a career-high 21 times for 120 yards. He wasn’t perfect in pass protection, but Folston looked like the national recruit Notre Dame got out of Cocoa, Fla., two years ago. His performance against Navy as a freshman deserves some mention considering his 140 yards were the most by an Irish freshman since 1999 (Jones) and just eight yards short of the school record for a freshman running back (Jerome Heavens in 1975).
“LSU, a lot of people saw a different side of us. We came out with the intention of running the ball down their throat. I feel like we have (our identity) … it’s not gonna go nowhere.” – Tarean Folston after the Blue-Gold Game