Heisman Trophy handicappers may have scratched C.J. Prosise from their short lists after he managed just 50 yards rushing on 15 carries against Clemson, snapping a string of three straight games with at least 100 yards on the ground.
But when it comes to contributing in more ways than one, few are more qualified that the 6-foot-1, 220-pound red-shirt junior who enters this weekend’s game against Navy with 650 yards rushing, a 7.3-yard average and six of Notre Dame’s 13 rushing touchdowns.
“He’s one of those players that’s going to do exactly what you ask him to do,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “If you ask him to be a pass catcher out of the backfield, he’s certainly going to do that, and he feels comfortable doing it.”
Prosise’s comfort zone catching the football was born from his background as a Z/slot receiver in 2013-14 after spending his first season at Notre Dame transitioning to the college game at safety.
The move from defense to offense was a relatively slow process for Prosise. He caught just seven passes for 72 yards and zero touchdowns as a red-shirt freshman in ’13. Kelly often talked about how the receiver position was not the most natural fit for Prosise.
But in 2014, Prosise’s role expanded, more than quadrupling his pass-reception total to 29 for 516 yards and two touchdowns.
Prosise led all Irish receivers last year with a 17.8-yard average per reception, including three of Notre Dame’s five receptions of more than 50 yards and 10 (34.4 percent) for at least 20 yards. He converted a short toss into a 78-yard touchdown against Navy just 52 seconds into the game.
The coaching staff’s first inkling that the Irish might have an additional running back in their fold originated from Prosise’s success running jet sweeps from the slot position.
Prosise carried 10 times for 126 yards in ‘14, including a 50-yard touchdown run against LSU in the Music City Bowl that was a deciding factor in his move to running back with Greg Bryant’s future clouded -- and eventually -- clouded over.
Prosise wasted little time getting acclimated, due in part to Tarean Folston’s first-quarter, season-ending knee injury in the ’15 season-opener against Texas.
Prosise had just 50 yards rushing against Clemson after a 20-carry, 98-yard effort against Texas, a 17-carry, 155-yard outburst against Virginia, a career-high in carries (22) and rushing yards (198) against Georgia Tech, and another 149 yards on 15 carries versus UMass.
Against Clemson, Prosise proved his worth is much greater than just his rushing total when he added 100 yards receiving to his 50 yards rushing. That gave him in excess of 100 yards total offense in each of the first five games of the season.
He had 104 yards total offense with a six-yard reception against Texas. He tacked on 20 yards receiving against Virginia to give him 175 yards total. His one catch for five yards put him over 200 yards versus the Yellow Jackets. He didn’t catch a pass against UMass, but rushed for 149 yards.
Prosise became the first Irish back to rush and receive passes for more than 100 yards in a game in the same season since Raghib “Rocket” Ismail in 1990. Prosise’s four grabs against Clemson totaled exactly 100 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown grab that sparked Notre Dame’s come-from-behind effort.
“That definitely felt good,” said Prosise of his impact in the passing game. “I was just happy to get involved in any way I could. Just getting out in routes is one way to do it.”
Prosise may have taken a hit in the rushing department as his per game average dropped from 150 to 130. But by adding 100 yards through the air, he’s now gained 781 yards from scrimmage, which is an average of 156.2 yards per game.
“Clemson came in wanting to stop the run,” Prosise said. “They loaded the box and made it difficult for us to run it with safeties down to help with run support.
“But you’ve just got to keep playing. Coach (Autry) Denson kept telling me to stay with it and to get involved in any way I could. I tried to get out in pass routes quicker and just tried to get open.”
In addition to leading the Irish in rushing, Prosise is fourth in receptions (9) and receiving yards (131).
“You’ve just got to move on,” said Prosise of the stalled rushing attack that ultimately accounted for just 116 yards against Clemson. “Of course we wanted to convert that two-point play and come out with a win.
“But it shows that we’ll figure it out, even when the first couple quarters are rough. We’ll figure it out and start getting it done.”
Prosise lost the first fumble of his career early in the third period against Clemson.
“I definitely never want to put the ball on the ground and fumble the ball, but it happened and it’s over and I knew I had to help my team after that,” Prosise said.
“Coach Denson says just stick with it and keep running because one of them is going to pop out. That didn’t happen against Clemson, but I was able to help out on the receiving end.”
One way or another, Prosise finds a way to make a contribution – by land or by air.