Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

Last looks: Running back

26 Comments

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. 

Tommy Rees officially joins Kelly’s staff

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 28:  Head coach Brian Kelly talks to Tommy Rees #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the New Era Pinstripe Bowl against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Yankee Stadium on December 28, 2013 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Getty Images
9 Comments

Notre Dame has made official what Keith Arnold first reported Jan. 2: Tommy Rees will join Brian Kelly’s staff as the Irish quarterbacks coach.

Or, to adhere to Notre Dame’s release, “Tom” Rees will join Kelly’s staff as the quarterbacks coach.

“When I finished my playing career and graduated from Notre Dame, I wanted to do two things,” Rees said in the statement. “First, I wanted to coach, and second, at some point in my career I hoped to get an opportunity to return and do it at my alma mater.”

Rees spent 2016 as an offensive assistant with the San Diego Chargers, working with coach Mike McCoy to keep afloat an offense plagued by injuries, beginning with receiver Keen Allen’s ACL tear in the first week. Nonetheless, the Chargers finished seventh in the NFL in passing, ninth in scoring and 14th in total offense.

Rees will need that experience working with rising junior Brandon Wimbush, the only quarterback on the roster with any college game experience, though not a single start under his belt.

“I’m very excited to have Tom join our staff,” Kelly said. “He possesses an understanding of the game, and most importantly the quarterback position, that’s unique. He’s a true student of the game and great communicator that will offer immediate dividends toward guiding our quarterback room.”

Rees should not need much time to get up to speed with Kelly’s playbook or system, having operated within it in 46 games over four seasons, including 31 starts. He finished with a 23-8 record as a starter, 7,670 career yards and 61 touchdowns, highlighted by 3,257 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2013 alone. Only Rees, Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen and Everett Golson have ever exceeded 3,000 passing yards in a single Notre Dame season.

With this hire, Kelly completes his retooling of his coaching staff. The newcomers include:
Defensive coordinator: Mike Elko
Offensive coordinator: Chip Long
Special teams coordinator: Brian Polian
Linebackers coach: Clark Lea
Wide receivers coach: Del Alexander
Quarterbacks coach: Tom(my) Rees

Brent’s transfer makes sense for both sides

Justin Brent, Devin Butler
AP Photo/Joe Raymond
23 Comments

Justin Brent’s pending transfer makes sense on the surface if for no other reason than his complete lack of game action in the last two seasons. A slightly-deeper look, however, explains the move even further.

The rising senior running back had no logical path to playing time at Notre Dame given the performances of some of his peers. Both in the backfield and at receiver, younger players shined this past season while Brent rode the bench.

RUNNING BACKS

– It may have taken four games for rising junior Josh Adams to find the end zone, but he finished the season with 933 yards on 158 rushing attempts, carrying the ball at least eight times in all 12 games. Most notably, Adams finished the season with 350 yards and three rushing touchdowns over the last three weeks. That strong close shows Adams was not worn down in his second season of consistent use (2015: 13 games, 117 carries, 869 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and can be expected to provide the same bellwether output next season.

– Adams’s classmate, Dexter Williams, has not had the same success, but he did provide some relief throughout the season – most notably against Nevada (eight carries for 59 yards) and Syracuse (eight for 80 and a score) – on his way to 212 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries.

Between Adams and Williams, combined with NFL-bound Tarean Folston’s steady output and quarterback DeShone Kizer’s mobility in the past and the possibility of Brandon Wimbush’s in the future, there were not carries for Brent to showcase his potential. This is before even factoring in rising sophomores Deon McIntosh and Tony Jones, both of whom preserved a year of eligibility in 2016, or any incoming recruits.

WIDE RECEIVERS

– Rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown proved worthy of learning to spell his first name in 2016, catching 58 passes for 961 yards and nine scores, but St. Brown looks to be far from alone in the receiving corps moving forward. Classmates C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin each found the end zone this past season, despite competing with senior Torii Hunter, Jr., for both snaps and targets. Sanders finished with 24 receptions for 293 yards and two touchdowns while Boykin caught six passes for 81 yards and a score.

– Rising sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool add to the depth at the position. Stepherson scored on an even 20 percent of his 25 receptions for 462 yards. On a personal note, he did not actually reach the end zone on his 53-yard catch-and-dash against Miami, but I will still never forget that particular play because the accompanying roar convinced my nine-year-old niece it was well past time to leave Notre Dame Stadium to watch the game on a television where the noise would not be so surprising.

Finke chipped in 10 catches for 122 yards and two scores, and Claypool caught five passes for 81 yards.

– Again, this listing does not account for players such as rising sophomore Javon McKinley who saw action in seven games but has not yet contributed to the passing game or any incoming recruits. (We’ll get to the recruits later in the week, and even more so next week when, you know, they have signed.)

It should also be noted: Brent enrolled early at Notre Dame, and thus, he has already completed six academic semesters, not to mention time spent in class each summer as is typical of most, if not all, of the football roster. If he does indeed graduate from the University this spring, he will be eligible to play elsewhere immediately thanks to the NCAA’s stance on graduate student transfers. More than that, though, he will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Admittedly, such a confluence is rare and certainly adds reasoning to Brent’s maneuver, whether it result in him playing at UCLA, Miami, Arizona State, Indiana, Purdue or Ohio State, as he indicated to the South Bend Tribune were his top choices. Notre Dame does face Miami on Nov. 11.

Lament Brent’s decision if you must, but it was a logical decision by him, and Notre Dame’s shortcomings last season were rarely where Brent would have aided. Nor will the Irish appear to be wanting in those spots in 2017.

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

Justin Brent twitter
17 Comments

Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Getty Images
32 Comments

Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.