Autry Denson has always held himself to a high standard, whether he was in the process of becoming Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher or now, instructing the Irish running backs in his second year back at his alma mater.
So when Denson says he wants his guys to be complete backs, he’s not just paying lip service to the model. He expects it and he spells it out.
“Running backs are hybrids,” said Denson as the Irish reached the two-thirds mark of spring drills.
“We have to block like linemen, we have to catch like receivers, and we have to see the field like a quarterback. We have to be ball-moving specialists. We have to be able to do everything.”
How close Notre Dame’s running backs are to accomplishing all of those tasks remains to be seen. As it relates to how the top ball carriers handled their role in the running aspect of the ground game in ’15, the numbers give off a golden hue.
C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams – the primary ball carriers when Tarean Folston’s junior season came to an end after a mere three rushing attempts – combined for 1,867 yards on 273 carries.
That’s an average of 6.8 yards per carry between them as Prosise averaged 6.6 with 1,032 yards and 11 touchdowns and Adams averaged 7.1 with 835 yards and six rushing scores, including a 98-yarder against Wake Forest to set a Notre Dame record.
Behind a talented offensive line that boasted size, power and plenty of NFL talent, Notre Dame’s running backs – for the most part -- maximized their opportunities in ’15.
“We have highly competitive guys,” Denson said. “A guy like Josh Adams isn’t looking at the film of what he does well. He’s looking at where he can improve his game.
“If he misses two, that’s two too many. If he misses one, that’s one too many. Searching for perfection. We’re always going out there trying to play that perfect game.”
Prosise adapted to his first year at running back so well that he bypassed his final year of eligibility to turn pro. The Notre Dame backfield has become a veteran player, Folston, trying to regroup after less than a quarter of football in ’15 and four youngsters, led by the impressive Adams and promising sophomore Dexter Williams with freshmen Tony Jones Jr. and Deon McIntosh arriving this summer.
Adams took over for an injured Prosise over most of the last half of the season, setting Notre Dame rookie marks for rushing yardage and average per carry.
A year earlier, it was Adams who was nursing a torn ACL in his final prep season while Folston was pacing the Irish in rushing with 889 yards in ‘14.
Adams showed he was back, Folston is in the process of coming back, and Williams remains the talented prospect he was coming in before bringing up the back of the pack with limited opportunities.
Denson raises an eyebrow and smiles when told that Folston said he felt tentative the first time he stuck that right foot into the ground on the spring practice field and made the identical cut that ultimately put an end to his junior season on the third carry in the season-opener against Texas.
“That’s what he said, but what we saw, we put him in a position where he had to run and I was pleasantly surprised,” said Denson of Folston’s first impression this spring. “It’s human nature for somebody like Tarean, who is highly competitive, to be harder on himself. I would say he’s trending ahead of schedule in my book.”
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Adams’ rookie season was a surprise since a) he began the season No. 3 on the depth chart and b) expectations were modest considering he was coming off an ACL injury.
The rookie flashed his ability in a one-sided victory in the fourth game of the season against UMass when he rushed for 133 yards on 13 carries in an all-you-can-eat performance by the Irish.
It wasn’t until the ninth game of the season, at Pittsburgh, before Adams received another extended opportunity to shine when Prosise went down with a concussion. Over the final four regular-season games, Adams rushed for 147 yards on 20 carries against the Panthers, 141 yards on 17 totes versus Wake Forest, and 168 yards on 18 attempts against Stanford.
“Josh Adams’ confidence level was sky-high when he got to Notre Dame,” Denson said. “So it hasn’t done anything but grow. He’s confident; he’s not cocky. He puts in the work.
“If you’ve ever met his mother and realize his relationship with Christ, he’s a very humble young man. You don’t have to worry about him being complacent. He doesn’t know anything but to work. I’m thankful he came that way, but that’s the culture of the room.”
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Folston admitted to feeling sorry for himself in the days after his injury against the Longhorns. Once he took note of all the other Notre Dame players around him in the same physical condition as injuries threatened to decimate the ’15 Irish, he realized it was time he stop brooding and get back to work.
“He’s been a positive influence,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of Folston. “When he was hurt, he was around, he traveled with us. I don’t think the transition was easy for him. There were things he could have done better. But overall, he did the things that I wanted him to do to be a better teammate.”
Folston can be rather low-key and understated. He’s not a vocal player per se. But beneath the quiet veneer burns a competitor.
“When Tarean went down, he didn’t get a pass,” Denson said. “He was still a leader. You don’t just put down your responsibility when you’re not playing. You saw it when C.J. went down and Josh was playing. We didn’t allow him to not be a part of it.
“As an athlete, anything that hinders you affects your mood. So he had that going on, but we were very proactive. I was very proactive about reaching out to him and making sure he knew we still needed him.”
Folston is well on his way to being ready to return to his old form by August. In fact, Denson sees a better version than the one that went down with the September knee injury.
“He weighs more, but he’s a lot leaner, so it’s lean muscle,” said Denson of the 5-foot-9 ½, 214-pounder. “He might have been a little softer last year. That goes back to his rehab and just his mindset.
“You say you’re one play away, and when he lived it, it showed up in the weight room. He’s definitely a player with more of a sense of urgency.”
WILLIAMS IN WAITING
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Prior to Prosise’s injury woes, Dexter Williams – the more highly-touted of the rookie running backs coming in a year ago – was a victim of a logjam in the backfield as the No. 4 man in the rotation.
It wasn’t because Williams lacked the confidence to play on the collegiate level.
“Dexter was ready to go last year,” Denson said. “It wasn’t because he wasn’t ready; the opportunity just didn’t present itself.”
Williams may not have picked up the entirety of the system quite like Adams did. He remains, however, a promising No. 3 man in the rotation with the skill set to excel.
“The difference between Dexter and Josh last year was that Josh was getting the reps,” Denson said. “(Adams) was able to apply that stuff in real game situations. His comfort level with the system, the real world application of game situations, allows him to play and allows his natural God-given talent to take over.
“You can’t sit on the sideline and watch. It’s a hands-on sport. With C.J. gone, you have an availability of reps for Dexter to apply what he’s getting in the classroom. If you keep playing football, you’re bound to get better.”
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The running back group also includes Justin Brent, the converted receiver, and Josh Anderson, the former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship in dramatic fashion last August, and then took Notre Dame up on an offer to return for a fifth-year in ’16.
Joining the group this summer will be freshmen Tony Jones Jr. and Deon McIntosh. Jones offers some power to the group whereas McIntosh is more in the scatback/slot receiver mold.
In the meantime, Denson expects those who have been around to carry themselves and work like veterans.
“I want them to want to be the guy, so they have to go out each practice and compete,” Denson said. “When they take reps, I want to see them take reps like they’ve been here…because they have.”
Denson believes in the process. If a player follows the process, his opportunity will arise, especially in today’s more physical game.
“I don’t have to recommend (who plays); they have to earn it,” Denson said. “They earn it on the practice field. I’ll know who gets the nod by who’s going out to perform. Every day, it’s a competition.
“It’s good to have three guys because nobody can be complacent. The nature of the game when I was playing, I’m not saying it wasn’t as physical, but it’s a different game today. You need two or three guys.
“Every guy in that room is going to get a chance to impact that room at some point in the season. When, we don’t know, but they have to be prepared when their number is called.”