Seeing Notre Dame No. 15 in the nation in rushing yards per game heading into the final weekend of October is a blast from the past. The Irish haven’t ranked higher than 38th in rushing at the end of a season since 2001.
The credit starts with an offensive coaching staff that recognized the need to accentuate the team’s greatest strength – its offensive line – which has proven itself to the tune of 234.5 yards rushing per game, 5.95 yards per carry and 19 touchdowns on the ground.
The offensive line has, at virtually every turn, answered the call.
So, too, has running back C.J. Prosise, who, if he stays on pace this weekend when the Irish (6-1) travel to Philadelphia to take on No. 21 Temple (7-0), will crack the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
Brian Kelly stops short at that point of spreading around the credit for the improved rushing attack.
Four young and/or inexperienced tight ends are doing some positive things in the running game. Five – injured Durham Smythe, Tyler Luatua, Nic Weishar, Aliz’e Jones and Chase Hounshell – have a combined 14 receptions in seven games, nine of which have gone to the freshman Jones.
Their greater job is to block. More specifically, block on the perimeter.
The offensive line has the between-the-tackles stuff handled pretty well. They’re also mobile enough to get to the edge. The wideouts are doing a marvelous job downfield and up the sideline.
Brian Kelly, assistant head coach Mike Denbrock and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford need those tight ends – minus Smythe, who won the job in the spring but suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week Two – to create space on the edge.
“It’s a little different in our offense,” Kelly said. “(The tight ends) are high-profile position players for us.”
The results have been mixed.
“They’re a bit inconsistent and most of it is we put them in some very pronounced positions on the edge of our offense, so they have to make big-time plays,” Kelly said.
“They’re not inside cut-off players for us. We’re trying to get to the perimeter, and they have to capture the perimeter for us.”
Luatua was considered the best blocking tight end returning following his freshman season in ’14, but an early-season concussion slowed his progress. Jones’ name is called the most among the tight ends because he’s caught nearly 65 percent of the tight end receptions. But he’s not a quality blocker yet, which has been exposed at times when he’s been asked to engage a defensive end.
Weishar has been active on the edge. He’s squared a bunch of people up and shown the most ability to work in space as a blocker. His mobility also lends itself to overrunning some plays.
Hounshell has shown a natural inclination to bend at the knees, line up and block people after converting from the defensive line. But his reps at the position have been confined to the last six months.
The Irish frequently throw the football wide of the hash marks. Quick outs to receivers put the football on the perimeter in a hurry. They love to get C.J. Prosise on the edge. Jet sweeps require perimeter blocking.
Although not specifically asked, Kelly likely would offer a positive word for the wide receivers – particularly Chris Brown, Will Fuller and Torii Hunter, Jr. – who have been tenacious blockers all season long. If Notre Dame’s skilled athletes get past the block by the tight ends on the short perimeter, good things happen for the Irish. It can be a bit hit-and-miss.
“It’s a lot of developmental work,” Kelly said. “They’re getting better every week. But there is some inexperience in that group. You look at Nic Weishar, Tyler Luatua, Aliz’e (Jones) and Chase (Hounshell)…Those are not experienced players across the board. But we’re doing pretty good with them.”
Kelly credits his coaching staff for bringing along a red-shirt freshman (Weishar), a sophomore (Luatua), a true freshman (Jones) and a guy who had three shoulder surgeries and has played the tight end position only since the spring (Hounshell).
“Scott Booker is doing a good job,” Kelly said. “Harry Hiestand has done a lot of work with them. Off the field, Jeff Quinn is working with them and helping them as well.
“So we’ve got a lot of hands on it, a lot of people are spending time there. They’re getting better each and every week, but there’s some inexperience with that group.”
So how have the Irish managed to become a running team for the first time in a decade-and-a-half without a consistent blocking presence on the edge? That’s easy.
“Oh, a breakaway back,” Kelly said. “C.J. Prosise.”
Entering the eighth game of the season, Prosise is 11th in the nation with 922 yards, 10th in rushing yards per game with 131.7, and ninth in yards per carry at 7.15. His 11 rushing touchdowns are tied for 12th.
Only two players in the FBS – Royce Freeman of Oregon and Josh Doctson of TCU – have more 10-yard-plus runs than Prosise’s 41.
“(Prosise has) been the difference,” Kelly said. “He’s turned eight-to-ten-yard runs into 50- or 60-yard runs.”
No telling how high the ceiling for the running game will be when the young tight ends catch up.