‘Clean slate’ for Irish backs

Autry Denson opened up about Notre Dame’s running back room, where he expects Josh Adams, Dexter Williams, Tony Jones Jr. and C.J. Holmes to all make a push for the starting job.

Under normal circumstances Josh Adams would be coming off a 1,000-yard season. And under normal circumstances the sophomore would be billed as one of the program’s brightest spots heading into spring practice next month.

These are not normal circumstances.

Instead of Adams finishing in a bowl game where an average rushing output would have pushed him into four figures, his season stopped short at 158 carries for 933 yards and five scores. Notre Dame’s abrupt ending also meant half the coaching staff turned over, including the offensive coordinator post to tight ends coach Chip Long.

While running backs coach Autry Denson remains, with a new mix of four scholarship backs to develop, Notre Dame’s all-time lead rusher will offer no guarantees to Adams for spring practice.

Even if Adams has earned them on paper.

“Josh still has to take steps,” Denson told Irish Illustrated on National Signing Day. “It’s a clean slate. Guys gotta go in and compete. That’s one of the things we’ve been able to do well.

“I know by continuing to add young men with that level of talent, it continues to push the room. Even the older guys can’t get complacent. The younger guys have something to shoot for and the older guys have to keep going.”

Even with Tarean Folston gone to the NFL, Denson will still have four backs to mold in Adams, Dexter Williams, Tony Jones Jr. and early enrollee C.J. Holmes. All were four-star prospects on Scout.com, each ranking outside the top 100 but inside the top 200.

Williams, who ranked highest at No. 114 overall, enrolled with Adams two years ago, has just 60 career carries for 281 yards and four scores. Adams was the lowest of the group at No. 199 overall.

Jones (No. 187 overall) took a red shirt last season but could see a boost in his playing time based on his ability to leak out of the backfield in the pass game.

“Tony, he’s made a ton of strides,” Denson said. “He did exactly what we wanted him to do. He got bigger, faster and strong. Now he’s hungry to play.

“The best thing about those guys is they all have the mentality that they are going to be the guy. None of them are saying that Josh is the starter. Josh is not saying that he’s the starter. Dexter is not saying that Josh is the starter. You can’t tell Tony Jones that he isn’t the starter and C.J. thinks he’s better than all of them.”

Holmes, who reported he will wear No. 15, might get a shot for some of the same reasons Jones might be a fit. Holmes has the skill set to play receiver or defensive back, which likely means his hands will fit nicely into what Long wants from his backs.

Holmes ranked No. 155 overall on Scout.com last cycle.

“Just his versatility, he’s been trained to do it all,” Denson said. “We want to continue to grow him in those areas. Just continue to allow him to be him. He’s a very versatile athlete. He’s what we wanted when we wanted a running back.”

Now Denson gets to start sorting out that depth chart. While it’s hard to imagine Adams not being the lead back again, it’s easy to imagine Williams, Jones and Holmes all getting a look for No. 2.

It’s a good position for Denson, even after last season.

“We’re just trying to move forward,” Denson said. “That mentality allows the room to continue to grow.”

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