Was Josh Adams the best Irish back?

At one point this season C.J. Prosise was touted as a Heisman Trophy contender. But a deep dive inside the numbers reveals that freshman Josh Adams might have had the better year.

Josh Adams had a good year. That’s not in question.

The more interesting part of Adams’ freshman season is where it stacks up among Brian Kelly era backs. Because when Adams’ year is analyzed from the standpoint of rushing efficiency – we’ll explain that in a minute – it rates with the best at Notre Dame in the past six seasons.

Of course surface statistics on Adams make him stand out before getting into analytics.

His 168 rushing yards at Stanford set the single-game Notre Dame freshman record, breaking Jerome Heavens’ 40-year old mark (148 yards). His 98-yard touchdown against Wake Forest was the longest run in school history and the longest run by a freshman back in the NCAA annals. And with 30 yards rushing in Notre Dame’s bowl game, Adams will set the single-season rushing record for freshman at Notre Dame (Darius Walker, 786 yards).

But when measuring Adams in rushing efficiency his season stands up against more than just freshmen. It might even surpass senior C.J. Prosise.

So what’s rushing efficiency? It’s a metric to measure how well a running back keeps an offense on schedule with down and distance. To notch an efficient rush, a back must gain 40 percent of the necessary yardage on first down, 60 percent of the necessary yardage on second down and 100 percent of the necessary yardage on third or fourth down.

That means a two-yard gain on 3rd-and-2 would be worth more than a 12-yard gain on 3rd-and-15. It also means a 90-yard touchdown run counts the same as a three-yard run on 2nd-and-5.

The statistic values running backs who keep an offense ahead of the chains, either notching first downs or setting up manageable second or third downs.

Among all Kelly-era running backs with at least 25 carries, Adams ranks second with a 59.8 percent rushing efficiency rate, which trails only senior-year Jonas Gray, who posted a ridiculous 70.5 percent rate four years ago.

Meanwhile Prosise, who was a near certainty to set Notre Dame’s single-season rushing record through October before injuries derailed his campaign, slots only No. 10 in this metric. His 52.9 percent rushing efficiency is virtually identical to a freshman George Atkinson III, a big play threat but unreliable in short yardage.

Prosise, who suffered a concussion at Pittsburgh and a high ankle sprain against Boston College, still hit 1,000 yards on just 150 carries. Only Reggie Brooks (120 carries) got there faster in school history.

Regardless of where Adams and Prosise rate in the rushing efficiency stats, there’s no question Notre Dame’s ground game is in a good place with that pair, plus Tarean Folston, expected to return next season. Folston’s freshman year rates third among Kelly backs in efficiency. His sophomore year slots sixth.

It’s enough to wonder if Prosise could return to the slot next season to maximize Notre Dame’s overload of running back talent. With Amir Carlisle out the door and Torii Hunter Jr. coming on, Prosise could be a bigger body in the slot that helps further unlock the ground game.

In Folston, Prosise and Adams, Notre Dame will return 535 carries, 3,293 yards and 26 touchdowns. That doesn’t even get to quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, who have combined for 171 carries, 789 yards and 11 scores. Those numbers are sure to rise after the bowl game.

It all presents Kelly with a glut of rushing talent to mix and match. While the offensive line will need a slight rebuild without Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley, the athletes playing off that group should stay the same.

That should be an exciting statistical reality for a rushing offense that set Kelly-era highs in rushing yardage (215.2 per game) and yards per carry (5.76) this season. Could the Irish be even better next year?

Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

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