Tarean Folston

Spring Solutions: Running back

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One of the more competitive positions on the Irish depth chart has 15 practices to gain some clarity. Running backs coach Tony Alford has one of the deepest position groups to sort through this spring, though the unit is still looking for a breakout star at the position.

While rising sophomore Tarean Folston showed some flashes of that type of potential last season, he certainly won’t be given the starting job. Classmate Greg Bryant returns healthy this spring, a knee injury behind him as he takes off his medical redshirt. They’ll be joined by veterans Cam McDaniel, the team’s leading rusher, along with Amir Carlisle and Will Mahone.

Let’s take a look at the depth chart before walking through the group’s objectives.

RUNNING BACK DEPTH CHART

Cam McDaniel, Sr.
Tarean Folston, Soph.
Amir Carlisle, Sr.*
Greg Bryant, Soph.*
Will Mahone, Jr.*

*Fifth year of eligibility available.

It’s hard to imagine Brian Kelly starting Folston at the top of the depth chart, especially considering McDaniel is a senior and the team’s leading returning rusher. And after Folston, it’ll be a wide open competition, with all three backs pushing for opportunities. Carlisle gets the No. 3 slot by default.

Atkinson’s early departure opens up some opportunities in special teams and a portion of carries, but certainly doesn’t do enough to provide clarity in a really compelling horse race. There are no additions or subtractions other than Atkinson, making it clear to all contenders how they stack up against their teammates.

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Cam McDaniel: Count me among those that wouldn’t be surprised if McDaniel came into camp a little lighter than he played last season. The senior played at a roster-listed 207 pounds, likely adding some heft to absorb some of the short-yardage, inside-the-tackles pounding that he took because the team’s personnel needed him to play that role.

McDaniels rushed for 4.6 yards per carry last season, a respectable number, but hardly an explosive one. In his final season in South Bend, expect McDaniel to try and add a big play element to his game, something a little less luggage could help him do.

Tarean Folston: The future is now for Folston, who could go a long way towards cementing a featured role in the running game with an impressive spring. Part of that work needs to be happening now, with offseason conditioning the first datapoint the staff will look at in Folston’s maturation. But throughout these 15 practices, Folston’s experience last season needs to lead to complete comprehension of the offense, successfully doing the little things that are expected from an all-purpose starting running back.

At times the game looked to come easy to Folston last season. He’ll need to carry that confidence into spring, where he’ll likely be running against a revamped No. 1 front seven, a matchup that (temporarily, at least) should favor the offense.

Amir Carlisle: You could pinpoint where Carlisle’s 2013 season went south last year. After a late-game fumble against Purdue, Carlisle seemed to lose all momentum, eventually fading out of the team’s game plan until serving as the team’s kick returner in the bowl game. Carlisle needs to put the negatives of 2013 behind him as he reinserts himself into the mix.

There are plenty of positives to take from last season. Carlisle made it through without getting injured, showing some durability that many didn’t expect to see. He ran hard inside the tackles and showed the type of explosiveness on the season’s first play that we expected to see more than once.

Ben Koyack rebounded from a sophomore slump season. Carlisle can do the same, with two years of eligibility left with the Irish. He’s capable of catching passes, making plays in space and making an impact in the return game. But he’s got to repair his psyche this spring first.

Greg Bryant: A meniscus injury gave Bryant a mulligan off the first tee. Shaking off the frustration of a slow start to his career, Bryant can now get on with the business of becoming an impact player for the Irish. Everybody expects Bryant to thrust himself into the conversation at running back. But it appears he’s also being groomed as a punt returner as well.

It’s too hard to gather much from the three carries Bryant had last season. But every report out of preseason camp made it look like Bryant would be an early contributor and someone that had the abilities to dominate as a runner, pass catcher and complete football player. Healthy and returning as a redshirt freshman, Bryant has 15 spring practices to make his mark.

Will Mahone: If there’s been a forgotten man in all of this, it’s Mahone. This will be an important spring for the rising junior, who did some things in fall camp to catch the staff’s eyes before suffering a high ankle sprain.

There’s no question that it’s a crowded depth chart. But Mahone showed enough speed and quickness to spend some time at slot receiver, and provided some intriguing highlights at Camp Shiloh to make it look like he’s more than just another body at the position.

Listed at 214 pounds on last year’s roster, if there’s a role for Mahone in this offense it could be as a power, short-yardage runner. It’ll be interesting to see where he sits in on the spring roster and if he can find a niche in this offense.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.