The Power of Three

Irish running backs coach Autry Denson demands that each of his pupil’s prepare as if he were Notre Dame’s lead runner. That expectation and the adherence to it paid off in 2015.

Notre Dame’s No. 3 running back exiting August Camp 2015 gashed No. 6 Stanford for 10 first downs in late November. He wasn’t on the team one year ago today.

Notre Dame’s No. 3 running back at the outset of Spring Practice 2015 gained 600 yards and scored six touchdowns in September alone. He was a wide receiver in two preceding seasons.

Notre Dame’s No. 3 running back, at present, at least in the eyes of the media though not his position coach, is sophomore Dexter Williams. He’s the fastest among a fast group, but that’s not why he’ll likely make an impact when the Irish open the season at Texas in September.

“He’s making the natural progressions,” said running backs coach Autry Denson. “Now a year in the system, his natural athleticism is allowed to come out. But I’m more excited about what he’s doing in the pass game and playing without the ball. He’s making that next step which is what he should be doing right now.”

DIFFERENTIATORS
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

Williams’ best moments last season came exclusively after contests had already been decided. His chief competitors today, classmate Josh Adams and senior Tarean Folston, have a proven body of work to review when the bullets were live. But Williams, as once was offered of former Irish speedster Randy Kinder, can flat out GO.

“He’s naturally just a really fast guy. That’s just God-given speed,” said Denson of Williams who was clocked at 4.51 in the 40-yard dash this winter. “He can run. Also he’s a better pass-catcher than when he got here and he’s getting a lot more comfortable there.

“But I think his attention to detail (is key). Dexter plays with a high level of detail and whatever he’s not good at, he really wants to be good at…We know he’s special with the ball in his hands but the next step for any running back is what you can do without the ball in your hands.

“Play-fakes. Making sure you carry out the fake. Making sure you can block. Making sure you contribute in the pass game via route running. Everything we train. He’s a year in so you’re starting to see the signs of his athleticism because he’s so much more comfortable as opposed to thinking.”

It’s something Adams picked up from the outset.

“He played as a freshman so it’s kind of self-explanatory,” said Denson of his breakout freshman that ripped Pittsburgh for 147 yards and later Stanford for a whopping 168 en route to an 835-yard record-breaking freshman season.

“By the time we got two or three practices into Culver (training camp) we knew we had something, and I mean that from a maturity standpoint. He didn’t surprise me because I get to work with him several times throughout a given day.

“That dude is a stud. They all are.”

THE SENIOR AND THE SUPPORTING CAST
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

In good health, it’s reasonable to surmise Folston will be tough to keep out of the Irish lineup. Six months removed from ACL surgery, the senior passed Denson’s first test to that end in a recent practice when he, you guessed it, excelled without the football.

“He looks really good,” said Denson. “He picked up a blitzing D-End today and really laid into him. Tarean is Tarean. Nobody worries about him. He’s a tough kid.

“To Tarean’s credit, he stayed involved (when injured) last year. He never left the room. That’s just how we roll in there. We never let him stray. He was there vocally; he was on the practice field. Now he gets to go through it and show them, but the guys have not missed his leadership, because he’s been always there.”

Folston was once Notre Dame’s de facto No. 3 runner as well – he finished that season, his first in South Bend, with 470 rushing yards, more than 400 of which occurred in the final six weeks. By season’s end he was the squad’s top back ahead of juniors Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson.

“Everybody in that room has to prepare like they’re going to be the guy,” said Denson of a group that includes 2015 redshirt Justin Brent plus a pair of incoming freshmen runners in Deon McIntosh and Tony Jones, Jr. “I don’t allow them to prepare like they’re a backup, they wouldn’t be in that room if they did. They prepare like they are going to be the starter and that showed last year.”

That was Denson’s approach as a true freshman in 1995 when he finished third in carries (137) and rushing yards (695) before starting the squad’s Orange Bowl game against Florida State – a contest in which Notre Dame’s “No. 3 runner” Robert Farmer, gained 97 yards to lead the team. 

It’s no wonder Denson’s pupils in the present hit the ground running and ready.  

“Josh didn’t miss a beat (replacing Prosise who replaced Folston),” Denson said of Adams last fall. “Those guys have to understand that throughout the course of the season, roles are going to change and we have to be willing to accept whatever roles we have, but the preparation has got to be the same.”


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