Comfortably Numb

Notre Dame running backs coach Autry Denson seeks comfort through contact for his quartet of competitors.

Josh Adams chuckled politely at the question.

“How important is a running back in this offense?”

(New Irish offensive coordinator and play-caller Chip Long is from Memphis, not Mars. Running backs are important everywhere.)

“I’m a running back so the run game’s important regardless of what offense we’re running,” Adams offered. “But I feel like it’s going to be a big key.

Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher and touchdown scorer Autry Denson concurs with his prize pupil’s assessment.  Denson enters his third season as the program’s running backs coach. He recruits, teaches, and attempts to mold those under his guidance in his own image.

“I think naturally you coach through your personality so I think the player I was comes out in recruiting,” said Denson. “I’m not looking for different guys to do one particular thing. I’m looking for guys that have shown they can (be versatile) or that I can coach them up so they can contribute in the run game and in the pass game.

“I don’t want one trick ponies. Those aren’t my kind of guys. I think that’s a by-product of who I was as a player.”


Denson has four horses in his current running back stable. Returning alongside Adams from last fall is junior classmate Dexter Williams plus a redshirt-freshman runner that turned heads at the most recent media viewing of practice – one that included a full scrimmage.

“He’s 225 pounds. Can catch the ball coming out of the backfield. He’s assignment correct, and can run elusively and get into the second level,” said head coach Brian Kelly of red-hot rookie Tony Jones, Jr. “He’s a pretty good ‘back.”

Denson noted that like Adams in 2015, Jones hit the ground running last August, his first training camp as a collegian. So too, apparently, did early enrollee freshman C.J. Holmes this spring.

“Tony did a really good job for us last year. We had the luxury of not playing him but he came in ready to play,” said Denson. “That’s what’s so good about our culture, now that I’ve had some time (with the program). They brought (Holmes) in with the culture that he came into and we also recruited to that culture.”

Holmes’ promising spring has since been truncated by a shoulder separation, but Denson saw flashes of his freshman’s potential prior. As expected, confidence and trust in his abilities remain in a continuous battle with on-the-job learning and necessary adjustments.

“It’ll come the more he becomes comfortable and in some situations you see it because we run those plays a lot of times,” said Denson of Holmes’ ability to showcase his athletic gifts.

“In other situations, he’s thinking and I mess with him because he looks like a robot on some plays. Once he gets the majority of the offense down and he can just cut it loose, he’ll do things even we didn’t know he could do.”


Adams told reporters he felt he failed to finish strong last season.

In terms of individual statistics, Adams was either modest or mistaken, as five of Adams best seven games last season occurred in the final five contests of the 2016 campaign, with a 180-yard effort at USC punctuating his closing act.

But by “he,” Adams actually meant “we.”

“What he meant by that,” Denson offered, “is we don’t play well if we don’t win. So if we don’t win, we’re not going to look outward, we’re going to look at ourselves. He didn’t finish strong because he didn’t do enough. If he had done enough, and that’s the way we all are, we’d have won.”

Notre Dame has failed to finish strong in each of its last four seasons:

  • 2013: 2-2 after a 7-2 start
  • 2014: 1-4 after a 7-1 start
  • 2015: 0-2 after a 10-1 start
  • 2016: 1-3 after drawing to within two games of .500 entering November

Of Note: Notre Dame finished 4-0 (after a 4-5 start) in 2010, 2-2 to conclude 2011 after an 8-3 start, and of course lost only their last outing in 2012 en route to 12-1.)

A lack of physical strength has been attributed (in part) to last year’s failures and the staff to a man believes they’ve addressed the issue in earnest.

For Denson, the continuous accumulation of physical toughness is key.

“Ah man. We can never be hit enough,” he said of this spring’s more physical approach. “You want to be tugged, you want to be punched, you want to be pushed. I hate when we don’t hit. I hate when we don’t thud. Because my guys need it. They need to know what it’s like to squeeze the ball. I beat them up myself in individual. I want to make sure that they are hit.”

What of the modern football theory that too many hits have an adverse impact on a ‘back over the 365-day football calendar?

“No that’s not true,” Denson said. “That’s what the weight room is for. We train to get stronger. We don’t train to get weaker.

“What happens at some point over camp or over the course of the season is you become calloused at some point. The numbing factor of football. So I want to get them to that as soon as possible. You don’t want it to happen when you line up against Temple.”

Denson walked that walk in the late 1990s for a run first (and in the case of his senior season, nearly a “run only”) Irish offense. He preaches it today.

“It absolutely helps you (getting hit in practice). It’s a numbing factor,” Denson said. “I understand safety and all those things, but football is a physical game. By ‘numbing’ I mean my body became conditioned in a different way. You need that; it’s a part of preparation for the season.”

If you’re one of Denson’s runners that preparation includes a few more popping pads each practice. Top Stories