Bryant and the domino effect

Tarean Folston must hit the ground running as a junior, which he didn’t do in his first two seasons while C.J. Prosise must show he can protect the ball and the quarterback.

The twists and turns of Greg Bryant’s football career have taken yet another detour off the main road with the announcement Tuesday of his academic suspension for the entire 2015 season, just a few weeks after receiving a four-game suspension for violation of team rules.

Trouble finds Greg Bryant. Perhaps more accurately, his pursuit of trouble is relentless.

“There are certain expectations within our program that must be met on a daily basis,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “Quite simply, Greg did not meet those expectations.”

As for the impact of his loss as it relates to the 2015 Notre Dame football team, Kelly and his staff have been preparing for this since spring when C.J. Prosise – Notre Dame’s productive slot receiver from the 2014 season – was converted into a running back, at least on a part-to-near-fulltime basis.

Notre Dame will try to mitigate the loss of Bryant by pairing up Prosise with Tarean Folston while hoping that at least one of two freshmen – Dexter Williams and/or Josh Adams – can fill the third running back role, which requires the basics of ball and pass protection more than it does ground-gaining ability.

While Prosise seemed to pass all the tests in the spring as the transition commenced, let us not gloss over the impact of the loss of Bryant, an incredibly gifted football talent who seldom allows his athletic skills to serve as his best foot forward.

By one’s junior season, all the bugs in the operation of developing into a consistent, reliable, legitimate football player should just about be worked out. A maximized Greg Bryant truly would be a five-star player.

Incredibly, the Irish have a unique talent in his own right with Prosise, whose big-play capability as a runner and receiver were accentuated on a couple of occasions in ’14.

There was the 78-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown early in the Navy game, a game in which ultimately every score counted significantly for the Irish. He had a 53-yarder against Rice to open the season after an early drop. He had a 59-yarder against Arizona State. He caught a career-high six passes against Florida State and was targeted several times more.

Prosise had three of Notre Dame’s five receptions of more than 50 yards in ‘14. Nine of his 26 receptions covered more than 20 yards while leading Irish receivers in yards per reception at 17.8.

He also opened eyes as a ball carrier, scampering 26 yards on one carry against Stanford and and then capping off the season with a clutch 50-yard touchdown run in the Music City Bowl.

But there remains plenty we don’t know about Prosise, such as his ability to secure the football as a full-time running back as well as the uncertainty of his pass-blocking capabilities.

All arrows at this time point up. He’s a big, strong, willing kid. He’s shown a high level of ability as a downfield blocker, but now that he has to do it on a full-time basis in the backfield without ever having done it at this level and where the margin for error is tighter, you just don’t know. Then again, you didn’t know about that with Bryant, either.

The domino effect comes into play with Amir Carlisle clearly the starter at Z/slot receiver as camp opens with Torii Hunter, Jr. likely taking on an even greater role as the tag-team partner with Carlisle as opposed to Prosise perhaps playing both positions.

To be sure, there will be times when Prosise lines up in the slot with Tarean Folston in the backfield. But more than likely, Carlisle and Hunter will handle the vast majority of those reps with freshman C.J. Sanders perhaps having a bit more of an opening than he might have had with Prosise splitting time between two positions.

For Folston, the time has come for him to enter the season spring-loaded and ready to be the workhorse from the opening kickoff of the season. He certainly was headed in the right direction down the stretch of the 2014 season as he cracked the 100-yard rushing mark in four of the last six regular season games, including 120 against Florida State, 106 versus Northwestern, and another 134 against Louisville.

Yet in each of his first two seasons at Notre Dame, Folston started slowly. The slow start could be expected in the 2013 season when his role within the offense was undefined as a true freshman. Last year – due in part to a shifting offensive line – Folston rushed for 41 yards or less in four of the first five games.

Folston must have the pass-blocking aspect of his game in order, which he didn’t halfway through his sophomore season against Arizona State when he lost reps to Cam McDaniel in the second half .

It will be interesting to see how the loss of a big, powerful running back will impact the apparent shift to a more run-oriented attack with a) Malik Zaire replacing Everett Golson at quarterback and b) the declaration by Kelly in the spring that the offensive line is the backbone of the 2015 team.

One can say “we’re going to be more of a run-oriented team,” and yet still face that age-old dilemma every time it pops up, which is virtually every series. If the Irish throw on first down with Zaire at quarterback and it’s incomplete, what happens and what’s the approach on second down?

Will it be pass again because 10 yards on two downs is challenging to gain on the ground, or will the insertion of Mike Sanford into the offensive decision-making process allow the Irish to be patient with the rushing attack? Or will the explanation for throwing 40 times be: “We had to throw because they had seven and eight men in the box,” which teams clearly implement against the inexperienced Zaire.

In order to be a legitimate rushing team, you have to run the football against seven and eight men in the box. Not all the time, but you must be willing to latch onto the backs of the offensive linemen and pound out the yardage.

With Golson, the difference between 2nd- or 3rd-and-10 and 2nd- or 3rd-and-6 was minimal. With Zaire, it’s significant. How accurately Zaire throws the football will go a long way toward determining how much he throws on first down.

As for Bryant, the plan for now – according to his father, Greg, Sr., in a Tuesday interview with Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson – is for his son to enroll at Notre Dame this month as a regular student after achieving a B- in summer school when a B+ was needed to stay eligible.

The fact Bryant recorded a B- seems to indicate that at least some effort is being made in the classroom. Perhaps Notre Dame is just not going to work for Bryant. Perhaps, as it is often said, Notre Dame just isn’t the right fit for Bryant.

And yet if he actually enrolls this fall without football to keep him engaged, it’s another sign of how hard Gregs Sr. and Jr. are trying to salvage the golden opportunity of attending Notre Dame, which is admirable.

The loss of Bryant should not be underestimated. He is an incredible talent. By the same token, barring a significant injury at running back, the Irish should have plenty in the one-two running back punch of Folston and Prosise with Zaire forming a three-man running tandem.

Every program faces pre-season controversy. This is a far cry from last year’s pre-season when four players and then a fifth were accused of academic misconduct.

Of course, camp doesn’t actually open until Friday. Still plenty of time for a bombshell.


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