Last looks: Running back

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After two seasons of trying to find carries for a handful of emerging running backs, Notre Dame has the opposite problem: Trying to spread out a growing workload among a smaller, highly-differentiated position group.

For the first time since Darius Walker returned after a dominant 2005 season, the Irish have a trustworthy returning starter in Tarean Folston. But behind that? It’s a big question mark.

Sure, C.J. Prosise was the team’s breakout offensive star this spring and will be counted on to step into the rotation. But he was a wide receiver this time last year, still learning the nuances of that position after starting his career at safety. And while Greg Bryant’s departure mostly made headlines because of his five-star recruiting pedigree, the Irish weren’t in a position to lose a returning contributor, especially one three years into the offensive system. But that’s where the running backs find themselves. Strong at the top, intriguing in the middle and backed up by two true freshmen and a recently promoted walk-on.

So let’s take our last looks at the running back position before the Longhorns come to town next weekend.

 

RUNNING BACK
Position Coach: Autry Denson

 

PROJECTED DEPTH CHART

RB1: Tarean Folston, Jr.
RB2: C.J. Prosise, Sr.*
RB3: Josh Adams, Fr.
RB4: Dexter Williams, Fr.
RB5: Justin Brent, Soph.
RB6: Josh Anderson, Sr*

*Denotes additional year of eligibility available. 

 

LEADING MAN

Tarean Folston. Make no mistake, Folston has a chance to be Notre Dame’s most productive back since Walker ran behind two veteran offensive lines in 2005-06. And he’s also quick enough to break some plays downfield, a limitation in Walker’s game that made him rely more on savvy than speed.

But Folston hasn’t emerged as an alpha dog in three seasons, even when it looked like he had that opportunity at the tail end of the last two campaigns. So while Prosise’s big spring is an obvious positive, it also raises questions about Folston’s ability to step forward, something he’ll be needed to do this year.

 

NEED A BIG SEASON

C.J. Prosise. I’m buying into Prosise’s ability as a home-run hitter, and I think there’s a place for him to get 10 to 15 carries a game. But there’s still got to be a learning curve for an athlete who is seeing things for the first time. You can bust loose on a couple big jet sweeps as a slot receiver and have a nice 15 spring practices. But there are still going to be some rough patches, especially in the subtler arts like pass protection and other recognition-based responsibilities.

Brian Kelly talked positively about Prosise’s return from a balky hip flexor. But that’s hardly what you want, a speed guy battling a nagging injury as he enters the season. Prosise very well could be one of Notre Dame’s most dynamic playmakers. Or he could be another spring sensation. Let’s hope the former is true.

 

THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…

Can they stay healthy? There’s not a lot of margin for error here. Freshman Josh Adams will likely be activated from the start and Dexter Williams can’t be far behind. From a top-end talent point of view, Folston and Prosise have the ability to be dynamic. But this could go 60-to-zero pretty quickly with a rolled ankle and a tweaked hip flexor.

 

How will the run game mesh with Zaire? Notre Dame can’t follow the formula they utilized against LSU. Malik Zaire is a big-time runner with plenty of power, but Kelly, new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and associate head coach Mike Denbrock would be crazy to have Zaire running more than 20 times a game… and then expect him to do it the next Saturday.

But after years of having ill-equipped personnel (Golson included), Zaire is a perfect triggerman for the read option. But making sure he and his backs are on the same page is crucial, especially in red zone situations.

 

Will someone dominate already? Notre Dame’s last 1,000 yard rusher was Cierre Wood in 2011. If no back steps forward and does that in 2015, I’ll be both surprised and disappointed. There’s no reason the Irish shouldn’t have three top-rate runners. Zaire, Folston and Prosise look like the type of three-headed monster that could’ve been at the tip of the spear for a Lou Holtz offense. But someone needs to emerge as a dominant player.

 

THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS

Will the Irish control the clock with the running game? Brian Kelly talked early in his tenure about not caring about time of possession. But then in 2012, his team changed it’s tune, finishing in the Top 25, averaging nearly 32 minutes a game.

Zaire is a first-year starter with essentially six quarters of playing experience. Taking your time and controlling things is an option. (Then again, so is going hyper-speed, with a quarterback finally capable of doing it.) In enemy territory—or if the defense needs a breather—this could be a good idea.

 

I’m interested to see how the running backs are used in the passing game. Folston is smooth as a receiver. Prosise just got done being one. While the actual depth chart at wideout is stacked, incorporating the backs into the passing game could open up more options and be a quarterback’s best friend.

Last year, we heard a lot about the backs playing that role, but it never really materialized. I hope that changes in 2015.

 

What will Autry Denson’s impact on this position group be? Tony Alford was a great part of Notre Dame’s program, especially on the recruiting trail. But a new voice in the room isn’t a bad thing and Denson’s imprint on this position group could be a new attention to detail.

We can worry about the young assistant holding his own in Florida another time. Right now, he needs to make sure Prosise knows what he’s doing, Justin Brent makes a somewhat successful transition to running back and two young freshmen are ready if their numbers are called.

 

*This article was amended to include former wide receiver Justin Brent in the depth chart. 

Questions for the week: If without St. Brown, who will Notre Dame turn to?

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Equanimeous St. Brown may not have matched his breakout sophomore season of a year ago, but his junior year has been nothing to scoff at. Despite being held without a catch in Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday, primarily due to injury, the junior receiver stands second in all Irish receiving categories.

If St. Brown is not cleared from the concussion protocol by the end of the week, he will be missed at Stanford (8 p.m. ET; ABC).

How will Notre Dame adjust without its most consistent receiver?

St. Brown has 26 catches for 357 yards and three touchdowns this season. Sophomore Chase Claypool exceeds the first two figures and sophomore Kevin Stepherson caught his third and fourth touchdowns against the Midshipmen. Those two are the obvious candidates to replace St. Brown’s production.

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson led all Irish receivers with five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns during Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

That applies to Stepherson more than Claypool, despite the greater physical disparity from St. Brown. Simply enough, Stepherson’s continued increase in prevalence in the Irish passing game would likely surpass a healthy St. Brown this weekend.

The other possibility is junior Miles Boykin. In St. Brown’s absence this past weekend, Boykin caught two passes for 33 yards. His physicality and skillset most mirrors St. Brown’s, and plugging him into any three-receiver sets would allow Stepherson and Claypool to stick to the roles they regularly rehearse.

Will Notre Dame slow Stanford star running back Bryce Love? Rather, will the Irish need to?

Continued ankle and lower leg injuries have hampered Love for much of the season now. They kept him on the sidelines when the Cardinal barely slipped past Oregon State a few weeks ago, and they limited his fourth quarter this past weekend during Stanford’s 17-14 victory against Cal. The junior finished with 101 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Backup Cameron Scarlett added 61 yards on 14 carries.

Injuries have been about the only thing capable of consistently stopping Stanford running back Bryce Love this season. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

In the fourth quarter, Love took four carries for 11 total yards. For a running threat rarely stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, it was startling to see him take one of those carries to the line and no further while another gained just one yard.

Thus, there seems to be some logic to Stanford keeping Love sidelined once more. If Washington beats Washington State on Saturday — played concurrently on FOX with the game at hand — then the Cardinal heads to the Pac-12 title game. As much as Stanford undoubtedly wants to beat Notre Dame, there are many more rewards available for winning the conference, such as a nice New Year’s holiday spent in Phoenix, Ariz., instead of a Christmas week spent at home preparing for the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif.

Will there be any movement within the College Football Playoff poll?

When it comes to tonight’s poll, not much, if any, of note. Few games registered on the national radar last week, and none resulted in top-10 upsets.

One development affects it looking forward, though. West Virginia quarterback Will Grier underwent finger surgery Sunday and will not lead the Mountaineers against Oklahoma as a result (3:45 p.m. ET; ESPN). If West Virginia ever stood a chance at the upset — and greatly helping any Irish dreams of still reaching the Playoff — it was likely going to need an otherworldly performance from Grier.

With a win this weekend, the Sooners would all but assure themselves priority over Notre Dame, even if Oklahoma loses to TCU in the Big 12 championship.

Will Miami finish the regular season undefeated?
Similarly, a win this weekend should lock the Hurricanes ahead of the Irish no matter next week’s results. Miami heads to Pittsburgh (12 p.m. ET on Friday; ABC), but that should not be seen as the sure thing instinct might imply it is. A mere 54 weeks ago, a middling Panthers team upset the No. 3 team in the country, stopping Clemson’s pursuit of a perfect slate.

Can Georgia survive Georgia Tech’s option?
Again, a Bulldogs win (12 p.m. ET, ABC) should secure them a nice spot in any chaos-filled future pecking order. However, that will not be an easy task. Paul Johnson will be sure of that.

Can North Carolina State hit the over?
This may not be as consequential, but before the season, this space predicted the Wolfpack would exceed 7.5 wins this regular season, and a win over North Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET; ESPNU) is needed for that cause.

Lastly, remember folks, you won’t nod off late Thursday afternoon because turkey has an excess of tryptophan. Chicken actually has more per ounce. Rather, you simply ate too much of the fowl.

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame on the precipice of a rare three-year stretch

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Thanks to its win Saturday over Navy, Notre Dame will have two chances to reach double digit victories this season. As Irish coach Brian Kelly pointed out after the 24-17 victory, reaching that mark for the second time in three years is not a common occurrence at Notre Dame. The last time the Irish achieved such success was at the peak of Lou Holtz’s career, never falling below 10 wins from 1988 to 1993.

“There’s a lot to play for, for these guys,” Kelly said. “[The seniors] have done an incredible job of leading us back to where we should be.”

If — and that two-letter word still looms large over this possibility — Notre Dame reaches 10 wins this season, it will actually be only the third time in program history to meet that mark twice in three seasons. Even though the Irish have played at least 11 games every season since 1969, only Holtz’s stretch and the 1973-74 seasons under Ara Parseghian qualify. (One exception: Notre Dame declined a bowl game in 1971 after finishing 8-2.)

While the 4-8 debacle in 2016 mitigates some of the luster of this distinction, realizing how infrequent such consistency is also underscores some of the outlier nature of last season.

Other coaches make inexplicable mistakes, too.

When the Midshipmen needed to gain five yards on their final drive, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo resorted to a halfback pass. To that point, his offense had converted four of five fourth-down attempts, falling barely a yard short on a fourth-and-five try on its first drive, stopped by Irish senior linebacker Greer Martini, naturally.

Since then, three consecutive conversions, including a 21-yard pass from quarterback Zach Abey. Yet, Niumatalolo opted for the trick play. It would have worked, too if Notre Dame senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti had not set the edge, recognized the play and quickly closed on running back Darryl Bonner, forcing the flutter of a pass attempt.

“If we would have gotten the ball off, he was open,” Niumatalolo said. “We didn’t block. We missed the block on the edge. If we get the block on the edge, we had a shot.”

Missed block or not, a triple-option team should not revert to a halfback pass when in a do-or-die situation. Ride with the horse that brought you. Win or lose with your fastball. Insert a third cliché here.

They are clichés for a reason.

Keven Stepherson points to the name on the back of the jersey.

Watching a replay of sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson’s first touchdown Saturday, a 30-yarder to tie the game at 17, one cannot help but notice he exuberantly points to the nameplate above his number.

In this instance, that was not a selfish or self-promotional gesture. The “Rockne Heritage” uniforms all had ROCKNE across the back.

“He’s had many chances to fold under the scrutiny that he’s been under,” Kelly said of Stepherson. “But he’s persevered and Notre Dame’s been great for him.”

Now, about traveling to Stanford …

The last time Notre Dame won at Palo Alto was a full decade ago, prevailing 21-14 in 2007.

With a loss to the Irish but perhaps a bowl win, the Cardinal should finish the season in the top 25. The last time Notre Dame went on the road and beat such a team was five full years ago, topping Oklahoma.

That can be a somewhat misleading fact, though. Those opportunities are not very common, partly because the Irish play only five true road games a season and partly because the opponent needs to be good enough to stay in the rankings despite a loss, an inherently detrimental result when it comes to rankings. Since Norman, Notre Dame has played only seven such games, including this year’s loss at Miami. (That does not include winning at Michigan State this year, as it is no sure thing the Spartans will finish the season ranked, whereas such can be readily presumed with the Hurricanes.)

Whether he returns for his senior season or not, Josh Adams has made his mark on Notre Dame’s record books. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Josh Adams now has more than 3,000 career rushing yards.

The numbers can speak for themselves. With 106 yards on 18 carries this weekend, the junior running back now has 3,105 career yards, good for No. 5 all-time at Notre Dame. Darius Walker (2004-06) sits 144 yards ahead of him.

Adams has 1,337 yards this season, exactly 100 fewer than the all-time Irish mark set by Vagas Ferguson in 1979.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Defensive counter to Navy’s option helps Irish put Miami in past

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Getting a team to heed the details necessary to counteract Navy’s triple-option attack is challenging enough. Getting Notre Dame to do it on the heels of its letdown at Miami a week ago made it even more difficult.

“The bigger shift this week was mentally get [the team] away from the Miami game to the Navy game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “That was a bigger challenge this week [than preparing for the option], quite frankly.”

Finding that focus allowed Notre Dame to handle the Midshipmen 24-17 on Saturday, despite hardly possessing the ball, including only 6:24 of meaningful time in the second half. It may have been a victory by only seven points, but it was a return to the level of execution the Irish displayed all season long before heading to south Florida.

“If there’s one game we’d like to have back, and I take the responsibility for the preparation of our team, for Miami,” Kelly said. “Wake Forest proved to be a pretty good opponent. We were up 41-16 in that game and maybe lost a little bit of concentration.

“Other than the Miami game, which was our one hiccup this year, I’m pretty pleased with our football team.”

To slow the triple-option, Kelly and defensive coordinator Mike Elko relied on a variety of looks from their defensive front, forcing Navy to make the adjustments the Midshipmen usually impose upon their opponents. In doing so, Notre Dame narrowed Navy’s offense from the triple-option to largely leaning on a quarterback sweep. Junior Zach Abey finished with 87 yards on 29 carries, not the efficiency the Midshipmen need for success.

“Our plan was really good about changing things up with our fronts and who had pitch, who had QB, and that made it difficult for them,” Kelly said. “… It really just became how the fullback was loading on our cornerback.”

That cornerback was often sophomore Troy Pride, usually a reserve. In order to better utilize sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s physicality, Kelly moved Love to safety and inserted Pride into the starting lineup. Along with a crucial fourth-quarter interception halting a Navy drive deep in Irish territory, Pride made six tackles.

“Troy Pride had to play physical for us,” Kelly said. “Here’s a guy who was a wide cornerback [back-] pedaling most of his time here. Now he had to go mix it up. He played real well, real physical.”

Though he finished with 14 tackles, Love will remain at cornerback this season, but Kelly acknowledged he very well could be Notre Dame’s best safety.

“If we could clone him, I’d like to do that. … Could he be our best safety? Yes. He’s definitely our best corner. The problem is we can only play him at one of those two positions.”

On receiver injuries
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown is in the concussion protocol after landing on his head/neck in the first quarter. Sophomore Chase Claypool could have returned to the game Saturday despite a banged up shoulder, but the Irish had found a rotation Kelly felt comfortable with at that point, leaning on sophomore Kevin Stepherson and junior Miles Boykin.

Claypool finished with two catches for 28 yards. Stepherson had five receptions for two scores and 103 yards. Boykin added 33 yards from two snags.

Things We Learned: Notre Dame will do what it takes to develop its passing game

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Notre Dame knows it needs a worthwhile passing game. The debacle at Miami made it clear some semblance of an aerial threat must be feared by the opposing defense. Thus, the Irish set to working on that deficiency in a 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday.

At halftime, those efforts struck a pessimist as dismal. A cynic found them necessary, and an optimist might have even considered them as having taken a step in the right direction.

Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush reached halftime 4-of-10 for 72 yards. On one hand, he had completed only 40 percent of his passes. By no metric is that good enough. That was the pessimist’s supporting fact.

The cynic looked back a week, remembering when the Hurricanes focused entirely on the Irish rushing game and Wimbush still completed only 10 of 21 passes. The cynic then reaches for a thesaurus and finds synonyms for necessary. Required. Imperative. Vital.

The optimist realized 10 pass attempts gaining 72 yards is an average of 7.2 yards per attempt. That would outdo all but two of Wimbush’s games this season, his 8.65 yards per attempt at Michigan State and his 9.33 yards per attempt against Wake Forest just two weeks ago. Settling anywhere north of seven would be a great step forward for this passing attack.

By the end of the game, the pessimist, cynic and optimist all had to see the same thing: When effective, Wimbush is a bona fide quarterback. Yes, at some point in the future, that initial distinction needs to no longer be part of the equation, but this still qualifies as progress. Yes, that initial distinction is a heftily-meaningful alteration to any phrase, but this establishing itself as fact still marks progress. Wimbush started poorly, but he kept his concentration and finished impressively.

“I thought he settled down into the game,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “What we’re looking for is a guy that will take what’s happened early and kind of reset a little bit, which he did, and refocus. He came back and made some really big plays for us.”

Wimbush completed five of eight second-half passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns, leaning heavily on sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson.

“I think I just started seeing things a little bit more clearly and adjusted to the tempo that Navy was playing at and went from there,” Wimbush said.

Notre Dame relies on its rushing game. There is no doubt the ground attack is the stirrer in this Irish coffee. (Consider that a wit’s attempt at saying, the straw that stirs the drink.) Wimbush throwing 18 times against Navy — not to count the couple other times he dropped back with intentions to pass but pulled the ball down — is not Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long reverting to Kelly’s form of the past, the form of the pass.

Instead, it is the Irish desperately trying to find Wimbush rhythm, if not confidence, in the passing game. As competitive as Navy kept Saturday, this was a week the inefficiency of the educational effort could be afforded.

Notre Dame can, in fact, win a one-possession game.

The last time the Irish did so was against Miami, Oct. 29, 2016. Prior to that, the most-recent close Notre Dame victory came at Boston College, Nov. 21, 2015. Including the victory over the Hurricanes, the Irish had gone 1-9 in the interim.

“For us, it was just a gritty victory,” senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said. “… I think that’s the next stepping stone for us on to Stanford.”

The nature of Navy’s game plan keeps games close no matter a talent disparity. Finding its way to a tight victory bodes well for Notre Dame, no matter the opponent. In many respects, this remained a mental hurdle needing clearing.

Greer Martini will (not) miss playing against the option.

And he might be the only Irish defender in history to feel that way. In 48 career games to date, the senior captain and linebacker has made 184 tackles, including 15 on Saturday. In six career games against option-specific options, Martini has made 61 tackles. In some respects, Martini made his career excelling against the triple-option, an approach most defenders avoid like a plague.

“It’s just the idea that it’s a lot of run, run downhill, run around,” Martini said. “Just play with a lot of enthusiasm, run sideline-to-sideline.”

Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo has gotten fed up with Martini, apparently confirming with both Kelly and Martini that he had seen his last of the linebacker. Both assured him he had.

“[Niumatalolo has] tried to block him, he can’t block him,” Kelly said. “… [Martini] just has a really good nose for the football, good sense. What you saw today was the physicality and bending back on the fullback. He was physical, played with the top of his pads.

“It was a clinic in terms of the way he played the linebacker position today.”

Martini insists he will not miss seeing the option, but it cannot be denied the effect the opposing attack had on Martini’s career. As a freshman, he made 26 total tackles. Nine came against Navy.

Notre Dame will host the NHL Winter Classic in 2019.

Yet, the Irish will hope to not be in attendance.

NBC and the NHL announced during the game the 2019 Winter Classic will be held at Notre Dame Stadium on Jan. 1, 2019, between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Burins.

“We are very excited to welcome the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and NHL to Notre Dame Stadium for the 2019 Winter Classic,” Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick said. “I believe it’s only fitting that two of the NHL’s legendary Original Six teams will take the ice for the first hockey game in one of America’s most iconic athletic facilities. Hosting two franchises with so many connections to Notre Dame also provides a unique opportunity to celebrate our hockey legacy.”

On New Year’s Day, a Tuesday next year, the Notre Dame football team will hope to be involved in a major bowl game. Given recent history, it will prefer the Cotton Bowl in Dallas rather than the Orange Bowl in Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.

Mike McGlinchey may be a behemoth of a man with shocking agility for his size, but in at least one respect, he is just like the rest of us.

Wouldn’t you struggle to keep your emotions in check taking the field to the “Rudy” soundtrack in your last home game after a five-year career at Notre Dame? Okay, insist you wouldn’t. What if your mom was waiting for you on the field?