CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – When Brian Kelly saw video of CJ Prosise staging his own dunk contest, Notre Dame’s head coach had seen enough. So the Irish offered the versatile yet undefined prospect from the Woodberry Forest School, located an hour north from where Notre Dame will face Virginia on Saturday.
Prosise was a three-sport athlete at that elite prep school and an all-state football pick at three positions, none of which he’ll play against the Cavaliers. That flexibility both revealed and obscured Prosise’s value. He was more regional than national as a prospect with Virginia his first offer. Notre Dame followed soon after.
Prosise committed to the Irish sight unseen before his senior year.
Four years and three positions later, he’ll be Notre Dame’s starting running back for the first time, a position he’ll hold the rest of this season. It would be a shock if he didn’t rush for 1,000 yards this season considering his backups are true freshmen.
For Prosise, getting here has felt inevitable and unexpected in equal parts.
“You never know where you’re gonna be needed,” Prosise said. “I know that I can do a lot of things. I know in my mind that I can play wherever they want to put me. I can be one of the best there is.”
Prosise enrolled as a safety but never played there during a red-shirt year. He switched to slot receiver as a sophomore and junior. Running back came last spring, an essential move based on current conditions with Greg Bryant playing JUCO ball and Tarean Folston (ACL) out for the year.
“Look where we are, right?” Kelly said. “I saw him dunking a basketball at his high school, and I saw this athlete, and I said, ‘I don't know where he's going to play, but we've got to take him.’ He's just that good of an athlete.”
“We've just got to find a place for him to play.”
After coming on late last season in the slot, including a 50-yard touchdown run against LSU in the Music City Bowl, there was no doubt Prosise’s athleticism would get him on the field somewhere. Now the question is how much is too much for the first-year running back.
Kelly said he doesn’t want to push Prosise beyond 20 carries per game, a mark Folston hit just three times last season with a max workload of 21 rushes. Prosise ran 20 times last weekend for 98 yards and would have hit triple figures if not for a botched handoff with Malik Zaire.
Prosise felt that extra work in the 48 hours after Texas but said he’s fully recovered heading toward Virginia, where he’s targeting at least 20 tickets for friends, family and Woodberry Forest coaches. He’ll have a scattered cheering section in the UVA student body too, populated by high school friends.
The connections to Virginia, which Prosise said fell straight off his board as soon as Notre Dame offered, will make Saturday at sold out Scott Stadium a test of the senior’s nerves.
“It’s tough to contain it because I’m so ready to play the game,” Prosise said. “I know I’m going to be mentally ready to play this game.”
The chance to start at running back will validate Prosise the raw athlete and make his charge into the lineup more gratifying. It’s easy for Kelly to stock up on undefined athletes, but it slots those players behind recruits who have specialized in specific positions.
Matthias Farley felt that when he enrolled as a receiver, red-shirted, then moved to safety. Now he’s a utility defensive back and special teams ace. Doing whatever it takes to help the team is an easy cliché. That doesn’t make it easy to live.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” Farley said. “You have people around you that think, like, oh, you're a wide receiver, but no, you're not. Or you go to your first meeting in the opposition’s room, like you're a safety and now you're playing receiver, it's kind of weird. It goes back to trust and understanding that the coaches are going to put you in the best position.”
For Prosise, his third position fits.
Kelly joked Prosise wasn’t physical enough to be a defensive back, yet he complimented the senior’s rugged running style. Against Texas that meant turning piles into rugby scrums, which let the Irish offensive line get into the action. Prosise heard his teammates pushing him forward. He heard the crowd applauding those masses of humanity marching.
It will be a different crowd in Scott Stadium, but Prosise will get a similar buzz off it.
“I feel like I’d still be a good safety if I was still back there, that’s not how it worked out,” Prosise said. “It’s not like a surprise (to start), but I’m happy and I’m ready to go.”