Jul 2, 2014, 9:30 AM EDT
While most people expected a freshman running back to burst onto the scene in 2013, few thought it’d be Tarean Folston. But Notre Dame’s coaching staff knew from the moment it recruited Folston the type of player they’d be getting, and in his first season in South Bend he showed flashes of dynamic playmaking ability, especially down the stretch.
With a running back depth chart pruned to just three, Folston is once again flying under the radar, even though in all likelihood he’ll be the man carrying the load for the Irish in 2014. Gifted as a runner with great vision and expected to utilize his hands much more in 2014, let’s take a closer look at Notre Dame’s sophomore tailback.
5’9.5″, 207 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 25
Folston was a four-star prospect, hovering just outside the Top 100 players in the country and well behind Greg Bryant in recruiting rankings. But his offer list was elite, with both Florida and Florida State wanting the Cocoa, Florida native that was Florida’s Class 4A first-team All-State running back.
Folston visited South Bend in October, then took a visit to Oregon before committing to the Irish in early January, before the national title game. A late visit to Gus Malzahn and Auburn had Irish fans sweating — especially when he didn’t send his fax in until late — but ultimately Notre Dame got the back that was said to be at the top of their recruiting board.
Freshman Season (2013): Played in 12 games for the Irish, including a start against BYU. Averaged 5.3 yards per carry on 88 touches, adding five catches for 35 yards as well. Ran for 140 yards on 18 carries against Navy, the most by a Notre Dame freshman since 1999. His yards per carry leads all returning running backs.
Notre Dame might have a star on their hands in Folston, who showed uncanny ability and vision as a true freshman, providing Notre Dame with a big-play back who also limited bust-play potential (a big reason why George Atkinson lost the faith of the coaching staff after struggling when given his opportunity against Arizona State).
Folston may not be as powerful as Greg Bryant, but he’s a smooth operator who will show better home run speed now that he’s healthy and has a full year in a college strength program. His ability to catch the football was on display in the Blue-Gold game, a role where he might see expanded time if the Irish decide to use Folston like Theo Riddick.
The only thing truly limiting Folston will likely be the opportunities. With Greg Bryant in the same backfield, and Cam McDaniel a trusted senior, how many touches Folston gets will likely be determined by how much Brian Kelly trusts him.
A bigger summer working with the staff can only help.
It might sound silly, but I expect Folston to run for 1,000 yards, the first back to do that for the Irish since Cierre Wood in 2011. He’d need to get around 175 carries to do so, but that number seems reasonable with a more dynamic running game and saving some touches for Bryant (who could get 150 as well) with McDaniel picking up around 75.
For as excited as Irish fans are for Bryant’s breakout season, 2014 could be all about Folston, providing he stays healthy. With the Irish capable of moving at tempo and utilizing Everett Golson’s skills in the zone read, the Irish running game could become a very deadly weapon, especially with the depth to stay fresh.
Ultimately, it’ll be interesting to see what Folston’s ceiling is. He’s smooth enough to contribute as both a runner and receiver. He’s strong enough to be used around the goal line. But it’s hard to know what his ceiling is athletically, though he’s one of the most versatile football players on the Irish roster right now.
Ripping carries away from McDaniel and Bryant won’t be easy. But feeding the ball to a talented back like Folston will be too tempting, even for a head coach that loves throwing the ball around.