C. J. Prosise

Prosise emerging as playmaker at two positions

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Most thought C.J. Prosise spending spring practice working with the running backs was a contingency plan—finding a capable body to split carries with Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. But Prosise has emerged as a true wildcard in the Irish offense, with Brian Kelly looking for new ways to get the football in the 220-pounder’s hands.

Kelly raised a few eyebrows after Saturday’s scrimmage when he said he thought Prosise could get 10 carries a game as a running back this fall. That number—in last year’s offense at least—would put him near the top of the food chain, a pretty extraordinary rise at a position top-lined by Folston and Bryant.

Kelly put Notre Dame’s running backs on notice after watching Prosise continue his strong spring.

“I want guys competing and if you watched C.J. Prosise, if I were those two, I’d feel like they better be careful because he’s got elite speed in the second level,” Kelly raved. “We had Max Redfield chasing him and he couldn’t catch him today.

“I think C.J. puts some pressure on both of those guys and I want to create some more competition. We have some freshmen coming in in the fall. It’s trying to create competition and I think that brings out the best in all those guys.”

Prosise might bring out the best in Kelly’s offense, restructured with the addition of Mike Sanford this offseason. And after leading the Irish in yards per catch and yards per carry last season, this spring Prosise has made it clear that he’s worthy of a much larger sample size.

“C.J’s as good a player as we’ve got on our offense right now, in my opinion,” associate head coach Mike Denbrock said. “He’s versatile. He can play anywhere we put him.”

Prosise made Saturday’s biggest play with a 70-yard touchdown run, beating safety John Turner to the corner and then running away from Matthias Farley into the end zone. It was a long-distance score that looked a lot like the game-changer Prosise made in the Music City Bowl, when he took a jet sweep and went 50 yards for a touchdown against one of the SEC’s top units.

With the ability to make big plays as both a runner and receiver, Notre Dame finally has a coveted crossover back/receiver, taking us into the “Is C.J. Prosise our Percy Harvin?” discussion, a long-standing hope for those that have watched Brian Kelly’s offense evolve.

Before he was known as an NFL hot potato, Harvin was the X-factor in Urban Meyer’s offense. Prosise could end up being the Missing Z, a multi-faceted slot player that’s been elusive, the closest being Theo Riddick, who bounced between receiver and running back before serving as the workhorse of the 2012 offense.

Kelly compared Prosise’s abilities to Riddick, a true compliment considering Kelly’s trust in Riddick during crunch time.

“One of the great assets that Theo had was when it was tough running time, he stuck his nose in there. He was a tough, physical runner,” Kelly said. “For as much as he’s made a career [in the NFL] catching out of the backfield, he won games for us because he was one of our toughest runners. I think C.J. can do that, too. He’s almost 220 pounds. When you put him up against those two other guys, he looks like he towers over them.”

We’ve seen spring successes before, and they haven’t always translated to big performances come fall. (George Atkinson comes to mind most recently at the running back position.) But Prosise’s arrival in the backfield comes at a perfect time, with Sanford’s inclusion in the offensive construct allowing some key changes to be made.

As we watch the quarterback position evolve, Prosise’s presence on the field will force defenses to account for him. If he’s motioning into the backfield, it changes the basic math that often times dictates scheme for defenses. Add in a capable quarterback running game, more from the duo of Folston and Bryant and a weapon like Will Fuller on the perimeter, and the Irish are going to present big matchup problems for opponents.

After starting his career at safety and then making the transition to receiver, Prosise interestingly may have found his home in the Irish offense with another position switch. And after coming into college with the “athlete” tag attached, Prosise’s versatility, matched with some elite speed and size, make him another unlikely star in the making.

Even without guarantee, Kelly expects Golson to return next season

Michigan v Notre Dame
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Brian Kelly can’t be sure that Everett Golson will be here in 2015. But after 25 years of coaching college football, Notre Dame’s head coach feels like Golson’s actions are speaking for themselves.

“I couldn’t tell you for certain,” Kelly acknowledged, when asked point-blank if he knew if Golson was going to be back with the team after he earned his diploma.

That’s life with the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule—a rare moment when the student-athlete holds all the cards. But with the Irish entering their final week of spring practice, Kelly leans on what he’s seeing from his veteran quarterback that makes him believe he’ll finish his college career in South Bend.

“He’s had his best spring since he’s been here,” Kelly said. “He’s fully engaged in everything that he’s doing. It’s the best that I’ve seen him do the things that we’ve asked him to do since he’s been here.”

Golson hasn’t made any public comment about his future. That’s by design and something Kelly has supported, keeping him away from media availability this spring so he can focus on a full load of football and academics.

And it’s that effort, both on and off the field, that makes Kelly believe he’ll have Golson in the program—and out front—come the all important summer months.

“It’s like anything else, if you’re half in, you kind of see it,” Kelly continued. “Listen, I’m not shocked by anything that 18-to-21-year-olds do, I’ve been in this business too long. But there’s no indication that anything he’s done would mean he’s just doing this as a way to go somewhere else. If I sensed it at all, I’d have pulled the plug on it myself, because we’re wasting our time.”

That may be the most important part of all of this. Kelly as the head of Notre Dame’s football program wouldn’t have allowed Golson to continue to take reps and take snaps from Malik Zaire if he didn’t believe Golson was going to stick around and work to be a part of this team.

This isn’t the first time Kelly has said this. He said it in the run-up to the Music City Bowl, where he made it clear that Zaire was going to start and Golson was going to have to earn back playing time.

Some thought that was merely coachspeak. But this is a head coach who let Aaron Lynch walk away from this team—never begging him to come back. Kelly did the same thing when Gunner Kiel wanted out, letting the five-star quarterback transfer with little hesitation.

Kelly never blinked when Golson was ripped from the program before the 2013 season. Nor did he once complain about losing his star cornerback and best wide receiver, along with his starting defensive end and two other defensive contributors in the days leading up to last season.

That’s life in college football. So with little guarantee of anything, Kelly moves forward with the hopes that Golson is part of this program, knowing what’s at stake for all involved.

“I think I have a pretty good sense of people and situations,” Kelly said. “I’m not going to jeopardize our program, our staff, our livelihood, what we do, if someone’s not bought in and 100 percent committed.”

 

Notre Dame mailbag: Consistency, the D and a fair QB competition

Brian Van Gorder
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With a big scrimmage on Saturday to get to and a Sunday at Augusta around the corner, let’s get to some mailbag questions.

Thanks again to everybody who submitted. There might be another round sooner than later, as we hit game week leading up to the Blue-Gold game.

 

@TerryDeLargy: Does ND Football find the consistency they’ve been searching for this year?

That’s a good question, Terry. And likely one that every program in American hopes to find as well. It’s really a next to impossible question to answer, but still—I think this is certainly Kelly’s best team and best candidate to do so.

Let’s go through a checklist of sorts as we try and look for places where you might see “consistency” develop:

A) Stability at quarterback.*

With a third-year starter Everett Golson and Malik Zaire showing himself capable, this is the strongest quarterback situation Kelly and the Irish have had since he came to South Bend.

*Of course this all goes away if Golson decides to transfer after he graduates. 

B) Veteran Offensive Line

With Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin up front, the Irish have two veterans who will play at the next level. Steve Elmer will have started games in three different seasons and Mike McGlinchey enters his third year in the program, after playing a solid game against LSU. Redshirt freshmen Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson look like standouts in the making.

C) Front Seven Experience

Notre Dame’s linebacking corps is the best we’ve seen in a very long time. And the defensive line has depth up the middle with veterans Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones and experience thanks to last season’s injury plague.

D) Talent at Skill Positions

Good players make good plays. And there are a ton of talented players to bail the Irish out with a great individual effort.

E) Leadership

Last year, it was tough to guess who’d be named captain of the team.

This year? It’s tough to say who won’t be named a captain. On defense, you’ve got returning captain Sheldon Day, but Joe Schmidt returns as the leader of the group and will likely put a ‘C’ on his chest.

But Jaylon Smith is a leader, Jarrett Grace and Matthias Farley as well, and expect KeiVarae Russell to walk in and lead the back end of the defense.

On offense, Nick Martin returns as captain, but Ronnie Stanley is stepping up as a leader. Everett Golson is a fifth-year quarterback and Malik Zaire is a natural born leader. Corey Robinson, Tarean Folston, Chris Brown, you could go on and on.

This is hardly a scientific breakdown, but these are all pretty solid ingredients towards stability and consistency. So I tend to think the lapses that have plagued this team will be far fewer than in seasons past.

 

sblxdoc: is there a marked difference in how a defense plays after 1 year of being in a new system? And what part of the defense should we see the biggest change?

 irishkevy: Do you think VanGorder needs to simplify the defense? I think part of the problem was its so complex and this isn’t the NFL where you have unlimited practice hours a week. It appeared sometimes the Irish D was more confused than they caused the opposing O. Will they play more basic and use their superior talent to win than disguises!

I lumped these two questions together because they pretty much are getting at the same thing. The “NFL system” that Brian VanGorder brought to Notre Dame.

The first question wonders if knowledge base and retention will be better in year two. I say yes, rather emphatically. (Do I have data to back this up? Not really. But if you look at the leap the Irish took in Year Two under Bob Diaco, then you’ll see what I’m talking about.)

The second question wonders if VanGorder’s system was too complicated. And in November, it certainly looked to be too difficult to understand for the young guys playing. I’m somewhere in the middle on the second part of this—and think it’s an important question.

While I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to pin the implosion on VanGorder’s system, I thought a fair criticism of the defense (at least post North Carolina) was that it didn’t have a base set to hang its hat on. If you keep relying on sub-packages and exotic blitzes, what do you do when a team forces you to go with a head-up approach? Last year after the injuries? The answer was give up points by the dozen.

Under Bob Diaco, the Irish defense didn’t do much to try and surprise opponents. And that allowed the defense to play fast, instinctive and mistake free. With VanGorder, we saw dominant stretches of play. But as the base of the defense became less and less experienced, that dominance turned into a disappointment.

Would Diaco have been able to do that with the young players Notre Dame was forced to play last season? I don’t think so. It’s easier to run Diaco’s system when you’ve got defensive linemen like Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix on the front line. After Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones went down, it was just a bunch of puppies.

Opponents will have a much better idea of what VanGorder wants to do in 2015. But the good news? So will the players. And if the secondary can cut down on the “panic snaps” as VanGorder called them earlier in the spring, and the unit can stay a little bit healthier this season, this will be a very, very good defense.

 

c4evr: Do you believe Kelly not naming his starter at QB until Fall is fair to either of the kids?

As I saw in the comments, more than a few people wondered about the use of “fair” in your question. I actually think this is the most fair way you could ask a staff to handle this competition—while also putting the team first.

What’s fair to the other 100 guys playing for Notre Dame is having a depth chart with two established players pushing themselves. What’s fair to the guys in the depth chart is to use spring football to get better, to chart and grade each snap quantitatively and objectively, while  also allowing players to compete for the right to play quarterback for Notre Dame.

With a new quarterback coach and offensive coordinator, thinking that Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford would be able to pick a quarterback by now isn’t all that realistic. From a strategic point of view, it’s not all that smart, either.

I wouldn’t expect to hear anything from Kelly in early August, either. Because I’d absolutely want Texas to be preparing for two very different quarterbacks, and only having game film from LSU to prep for Zaire will be a huge advantage for the Irish.

You didn’t ask me, but I’ll tell you how I think this will end up. Golson plays probably 70 percent of the snaps and Zaire is the closer on drives in certain red zone packages and hits defenses as a runner before going over the top as a passer.

Both guys will be happy leading Notre Dame to their most successful offensive season in the past decade.

Grace opens up about the long road back

Jarrett Grace
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When Jarrett Grace broke his leg in four places, the linebacker’s career nearly ended. Eighteen months later, Grace is back on the field, and back a part of the master plans for the Irish defense.

The one-time heir apparent to Manti Te’o met with the local media on Friday. And he spoke candidly about the long road back to the field, and a rehabilitation that required a new rod reinserted into his surgically repaired leg, and some tough, tough moments before the breakthrough.

Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune has a great feature on Grace, who talked candidly about life after the initial surgery.

“When you see the X-rays, it’s, ‘Oh that thing’s shattered.’ I had to get a rod in there. And they’re telling me about this surgery, and they’re hammering that thing in,” Grace recalls. “The doctor is telling me, ‘You can try to walk on it.’

“And I tried to a couple of days after the surgery. And I’m like, ‘Holy Cow, this doesn’t feel as good as you say it should.’ Blood’s like coming out of my stitches. I’m trying to shower. I’m yelling to my mom. So she’s bathing me in my bed, actually. I couldn’t do anything for myself.”

Here’s Grace on some of the dark moments before an additional surgery last spring replaced the rod in his leg and put his rehab back on schedule.

“I didn’t always believe in myself,” Grace said of the early stages of recovery when the prognosis didn’t match the progress he was supposed to be making. “I guess there was doubt, because when you look at it, it looked terrible. And you feel terrible.

“So that can compound itself, and then you’re getting depressed, because you’re not doing the thing you love, which really drives you, which you’re passionate about.

“So I went through some times when I wasn’t myself. I didn’t feel very good. I wasn’t sure what was going to turn out of this. Sometimes (all) I wanted was to be able to walk again, just for my future health and for the sake of when I have children someday.”

But that’s all changed this spring. When head coach Brian Kelly said Grace was a full-contact go for spring practice, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Yet Grace has answered the bell, even ringing his own in full-contact drills that kept him out of a practice before returning to the Irish defense last week.

Grace has been a standout in spring practice, the mental reps he took during 2014 preparing him for the on-field opportunities he’s had this spring. And with Jaylon Smith cross-training as an outside linebacker, the Irish are getting prepared to utilize Grace, Joe Schmidt and Nyles Morgan as inside linebackers, three very good players for two positions. Once a long-shot hope to play, Grace is now part of the blueprints.

The journey back isn’t complete. Not until Grace takes the field against Texas to open next season. But for the first time since he was the Irish’s leading tackler at the end of October in 2013, Grace is in the middle of the Irish defense.

And that’s quite a story.

Irish eye key OL recruit Liam Eichenberg this weekend

247 Sports
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Round one of Notre Dame vs. Ohio State went to the Irish, when Ohio native and coveted 2016 OL recruit Tommy Kraemer committed to the Irish last fall. Round two appears to be coming to a close as both the Irish and Buckeyes battle for blue-chip lineman Liam Eichenberg.

The Cleveland and St. Ignatius product will be in South Bend again this weekend, taking a final look at Notre Dame before a visit to Ohio State will conclude his recruiting visits. Then Eichenberg plans on making a college decision.

Per BlueandGold.com, Eichenberg is just one of a handful of key recruits on campus this weekend. He’ll be joined by OT Ben Bredeson, the No. 1 rated player in Wisconsin and one of the top offensive tackles in the country.

Two 2017 prospects from Cincinnati’s St. Xavier will also be watching Saturday’s open practice, with quarterback Sean Clifford and lineman Matt Bockhorst also on campus.

While Bredeson already holds an Irish offer, the focus will likely stay on Eichenberg. Visiting with his parents, grandparents and brother, Eichenberg told Irish 247 what he was thinking about heading into the home stretch of his recruitment.

“I just want to spend some time with the players and the coaches,” Eichenberg told Tom Loy at Irish 247. “My main focus this weekend is to look at the depth chart with Coach Hiestand and see where I would fit in if I were to end up there. I want to see what it would be like as a student-athlete if I were to end up at Notre Dame. I’ve been there a lot, so it’s nothing new, but I do want to see where I would fit in on the field as a freshman.”

At Ohio State, early playing time is definitely part of the sales pitch. According to Eichenberg, Meyer—and former Irish assistant Tony Alford—having a spot in the starting lineup with his name on it.

“Ohio State has been telling me that I would pretty much come in and start right away at guard as a freshman,” Eichenberg told Irish 247. “I was told that Coach Meyer talks about me every day in meetings and he is talking about how much I’m needed.”

The Buckeyes have four returning starters projected on their 2015 offensive line and signed (literally) 12 offensive linemen in the last two recruiting classes, but it’s no surprise that Meyer, Alford and former Irish assistant Ed Warinner are pitching a job to Eichenberg.

Along the Irish front, 2016 could have a few openings as well. Nick Martin will be gone and Ronnie Stanley is expected to be as well. Guard Steve Elmer will be a senior, Mike McGlinchey will be a veteran and redshirt freshmen Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson are likely to be in the mix. But if Eichenberg is as good as the Irish staff thinks, he’ll have a chance to get in the mix, though Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand‘s preference seems to be redshirting.