Grge Bryant, Austin Larkin

Post-spring stock report: Running Backs


(The first of a multi-part series looking at the positional depth chart coming out of spring practice.)


Entering spring practice, the running back position held a unique spot on Notre Dame’s roster. No spot was thinner—with just juniors Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant scholarship players. Yet the duo was also a somewhat proven commodity, a rarity on a roster that relied on a plethora of first-year contributors in 2014.

When Brian Kelly announced C.J. Prosise was cross-training with the running backs, many assumed it was a contingency plan, or at the very least a bridge to the summer when Josh Adams and Dexter Williams hit campus. But with new running backs coach Autry Denson working with the trio, the Irish’s most explosive slot receiver infused that speed into the backfield, turning into a potential game-breaker at a position many felt was already strong.

Let’s look at the post-spring depth chart and check the trends from this spring.




1. Tarean Folston, Jr. (5-9.5/214)
2. Greg Bryant, Jr.* (5-10/205)
or C.J. Prosise, Sr.* (6-.5/220)

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility



C.J. Prosise: Prosise was the talk of the offense, impressing Brian Kelly with his speed and natural running back instincts. Whether it was a 70-yard touchdown run in the team’s biggest scrimmage or leading the Irish in rushing during the Blue-Gold game, Prosise’s emergence has given Notre Dame another offensive weapon and perhaps its most versatile.

What that means come next fall remains to be seen. Kelly talked about Prosise putting up a legitimate battle for the starting job, while also saying he thought he could carve out 10 carries a game for him. Mike Denbrock called him one of the team’s best players.

But Prosise also has a key role as a slot receiver, a position where he led the Irish in yards per catch last year. So a standout spring might not translate to a fall emergence at running back. But wherever he plays, it’s likely going to be a big 2015 for Prosise.



Greg Bryant: It’s hard to call this a bad spring by Bryant, but it’s fair to say that this downgrade is the result of missing on his earnings potential. Put simply, all the talk about Prosise overshadowed anything Bryant did—and I’m including an impressive performance in the Blue-Gold game.

But maybe that’s a good thing. After entering as a freshman will ridiculous expectations, Bryant had a huge spring game last year and once again looked poised to erupt as a redshirt freshman. While he led Irish running backs with a 5.4 yards per carry average, he suffered through a midseason slump before rebounding in garbage time against USC and with a big punt return against Louisville.

Bryant has plenty of talent. He’s learning to play within the confines of the system as well. With great hands, special teams ability and a strong offensive line, there’s no reason to think a big season can’t be just around the corner.



Tarean Folston: Brian Kelly knows what he has in Tarean Folston. And that’s a running back who should be poised for a monster season in 2015. While he might not be the fastest or the flashiest, Folston is certainly the smoothest and most natural runner we’ve seen in the Irish backfield for quite some time.

Bulking up to 214 pounds this spring, Folston should be able to move the pile between the tackles, serving as a short-yardage runner when Cam McDaniel inexplicably took those carries last season. It should also make it easier for the Irish to ride Folston as a running option, a spot where he’s thrived when he’s been given enough opportunities.

Folston’s 2014 season saw him average more than five yards a carry for the second season in a row (he also averaged over 10 yards a catch). After averaging less than 10 carries a game through the first five weeks of the season, Folston took over as the team’s primary back and watched his productivity explode.

There’s no reason to wait in 2015. While Prosise and Bryant certainly deserve a significant role in the rotation, Folston is the Irish’s leading man at running back.



Buy. It’s hard to look at this position—especially with the addition of Williams and Adams this summer—as anything but really talented. Ultimately, it’s going to come down to the production of guys like Bryant and Prosise to make this group excel. But that’s frankly expected, especially with the perceived commitment to running the football behind a very good offensive line.

While the guy we heard the most about was a receiver just a few months ago, he solidified a group that should do big things next season.


The good, the bad and the ugly: The 86th annual Blue-Gold game

Malik Zaire

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And spring games are always a double-edged sword.

A great run by a running back? (What kind of tackling was that?) Dominant play by the offensive line? (Start the worries about the defensive front.)

Watching the Blue-Gold game from 30,000 feet, it’s hard not to see a football team that’s among the deepest and most talented of the last 20-plus years. We saw two quarterbacks that can move the offense by various modes of transportation. We saw Will Fuller look like an All-American. Three running backs with skill to burn running behind a rugged offensive front.

Defensively, the depth and speed of the unit looks much different than the one that couldn’t stop Northwestern. Jaylon Smith and Nyles Morgan ran sideline to sideline while the young talent along the defensive line looked far from the group that spent last November on roller skates.

Sure, there are worries. When Brian VanGorder’s defensive front put just one linebacker in the box the results weren’t much better than the last time we saw this defense without Joe Schmidt. And when the Irish offense wanted to run the ball early in the scrimmage they faced little opposition, marching down the field to open the game twice without much trouble.

Let’s go back through the Blue-Gold game, as we run through the defense’s (somewhat manipulated) 36-34 victory.




Nobody got hurt. That Brian Kelly made both of his quarterbacks live in the first half and lived to tell about it is a very good thing. Because if anything happened to either Everett Golson or Malik Zaire during the spring game, Kelly would’ve had to answer some very difficult—and fair—questions.

Keeping both quarterbacks in play for the first half made sense, especially if they were both going to be running heavy doses of zone read. But talk to people outside the Notre Dame bubble and watch the eyebrows raise when you explain that the Irish head coach was going to let his defense hit, tackle and sack his two-headed quarterback monster.

Make no mistake, Kelly was gambling. And it paid off. The closest thing to an injury looked to come when Nyles Morgan tweaked his ankle early in the game’s opening drive. But he was back on the field chasing offensive players in no time.

Notre Dame fans are prepared for the worst, perhaps still cringing from Ron Powlus’ broken collarbone in the practices leading up to the 1993 season. But avoiding any major injury this spring is by far the best news of the offseason.


C.J. Prosise. If you’re looking for the best example of Brian Kelly recharging his program with competition, look no further than Prosise’s performance this spring. We spent so much time talking about the quarterbacks that the two-headed running back position just took a charge from the team’s starting slot receiver, solidifying Kelly’s mantra that the best eleven players will play.

“I think as we continue to move forward, he’ll get every opportunity to take over a starting position, whether it’s at wide receiver or whether it’s at running back,” Kelly said. “So I’m going to play the eleven best players, and whoever the eleven best players are are going to be on the field. So I’m not going to paint him into any particular position or category. If he’s the best running back, he’s going to start. If he’s the best wide receiver, he’s going to start.”

All three backs played well. But Prosise’s speed was a difference-maker and the type of spark you want to see from the Irish offense.


The Offensive Line. Notre Dame’s starting five bullied the Irish defensive front early in the game, converting a 3rd-and-4 after Steve Elmer started the game with a false start and not stopping until they scored multiple touchdowns.

While there were some struggles on the edge with Hunter Bivin at left tackle and some rough snaps from second-team center John Montelus, Kelly was complimentary of the position group that’ll be the heart of the 2015 team.

“I think for me it was pretty clear that we’ve got a very good offensive line,” Kelly said. “They’re going to be able to control the line of scrimmage in most instances and we’ll continue to go to our strength, which we believe is up front.”

Ronnie Stanley looked the part. Nick Martin was at home at center. Mike McGlinchey and Steve Elmer paired with Quenton Nelson (and Alex Bars) to form a great nucleus, backed up by a strong group that Kelly believes is as talented as any he’s coached.

“I think it’s the deepest,” Kelly said, when asked to compare this line to others he’s coached. “So I think you probably go 7, 8 is really the difference here. And I thought what was really revealing to me today is that when the quarterbacks flipped, it was hard to tell whether it was the first offensive line or the second offensive line. Usually you know when the second offensive line is in there.”


The Young Receivers. Justin Brent got noticed for something he did on the field, a much different start to his second season in the program than last year. And Corey Holmes showed off a pair of hands that’ll show themselves to be quite useful in 2015 if he can get on the field.

Torii Hunter Jr. took a big hit after snaring a great throw from Everett Golson. Putting that trio with the established group of Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle gives the Irish plenty of depth, before getting to C.J. Prosise… and a talented group of incoming freshmen.

Kelly talked about the plays made by the young receivers as being a big piece of Saturday’s success.

“I was pleased that some of the younger receivers caught the ball. Corey Holmes caught the ball when he needed to. Justin Brent caught the ball when he needed to. I was pleased there,” Kelly said.


Max Redfield & Elijah Shumate. Sure, Brian Kelly tipped off Redfield that “The Inebriated Irishman” was coming, giving the safety a jump-start on Golson’s long heave to Zaire that Redfield turned into a momentum changer. But Redfield looked like a coach running the back of the Irish defense, a change from the confused kid on the backend doing his best not to get lost.

Paired with Elijah Shumate, the starting safety duo was rock solid, with Shumate looking strong tackling inside the box and at home in space. Kelly went out of his way to tip his cap to the work Redfield did this spring, one of the main defensive objectives heading into the offseason work.

“I thought Max Redfield continues to show why he’s going to be a big player for us defensively,” Kelly said.


Quick Hits:

* Quarterback Mechanics: Score a big point for Mike Sanford, as he’s cleaned up the mechanics of the zone-read footwork that we saw clearly during the broadcast. Golson kept his depth in the backfield much better, and the drop-step he used seemed to keep his eyes looking at the defense much better.

* Greg Bryant: He didn’t steal headlines like he did last spring with a big play, but Bryant ran decisively and downhill, moving the pile early and catching the ball as well. Don’t forget about him this fall.

* James Onwualu: Another guy you might be counting out, Onwualu made a nice TFL and fit in just fine inside the Irish’s starting defense.

* Jerry Tillery: At the point of attack on 3rd-and-Goal, Tillery made a nice play keeping the Irish offense out of the backfield.

* Really liked the hands by Corey Holmes and Justin Brent. Good to see them both make big plays.

* Don’t feel bad, Nick Watkins. You won’t be the only DB to get beat 1-on-1 by Will Fuller this season. I think Watkins is Notre Dame’s No. 3 cornerback, with Shaun Crawford at No. 4 and Devin Butler a very good option at No. 5.

But that assumes KeiVarae Russell returns as Batman and Cole Luke plays Robin.

* Greer Martini continues to be a productive football player. I like when he’s on the field—especially when he planted Prosise on the zone-read fake.

* So it only took DeShone Kizer to solve the holder issues. Kudos to Tyler Newsome for making the extra points, too. Now about that punting…

* It’s tough to look much better running the football as a quarterback than Malik Zaire. The combination of natural running skills and sheer power are a handful.

* Saying that about Zaire, I really thought Everett Golson looked more in control of the offense. I want to see them both play a lot next year.

* A tip of the cap to the NBC Production Team and Notre Dame’s Game Day Operations crew. That was no small feat making this game happen—and televising it no less—and it was hardly noticeable that anything was out of the ordinary on Saturday.



Consider this one big cop-out, but I just didn’t see anything that had me overly worried. So let’s just lump these together and run through it.

* What happens at left tackle if Ronnie Stanley goes down? I’m not sure Hunter Bivin is the answer, so you might see Alex Bars as the sixth man along the offensive line.

* If Malik Zaire wants to win the starting QB job, he can’t make the throw he did to open the scrimmage. That’ll get him standing on the sideline mighty quick. Bad, bad decision there.

* I’m not convinced that Notre Dame’s defensive line is ready for primetime. Mostly at defensive end, though the early push up front was lacking as well. But I’m reserving judgment until I see Jarron Jones lineup up next to Sheldon Day. Then depth players like Tillery, Daniel CageJay Hayes and a healthy Jon Bonner will be able to serve as reinforcements, not leading men.

Put the duo of Jones and Day between Isaac Rochell and either Andrew Trumbetti or Romeo Okwara and I’ll likely say something different. But will somebody rush the passer from this group?

* When I see people whose opinion on Notre Dame football start to discuss Joe Schmidt‘s place in this defense, I start to wonder if they’ve been eating paint chips.

Schmidt is a starter on this defense. Period. Whether that’s at Will or Mike, that’s still up for debate. But I just don’t see Jaylon Smith coming off the field, especially as the Irish look for a pass rusher. That could be Smith’s job moving forward.

From there, I’m not 100 percent sure that Nyles Morgan can captain the ship without a sturdy co-pilot like Schmidt. And Jarrett Grace‘s recovery doesn’t sound fully complete, making him more likely to play a role like Ben Councell did last season rather than a true starting spot.

Here’s Kelly talking about the linebackers after the spring game, specifically where Smith lines up.

“The different sub-packages will determine where [Smith’s] playing, and we feel like we’re in a position now when we’re in our base defense, he’ll be inside. When we get into some of our sub-packages, we can choose where he plays. He can be on the outside, he can be on the inside depending on what we want to do. I think we’ve firmly established that we can move him around. He becomes a player now after this spring that within our sub-packages we can move him inside or outside, that’s pretty clear.

“Jarrett Grace has established himself as a middle linebacker that can come in and help us in a number of different situations. He’s smart, he gets guys lined up, he gets himself lined up and he can play. Nyles Morgan continues to get better and better, and Joe Schmidt now is going to get a chance now to probably play both Mike and Will. So just gives us more depth at those positions where at times you know last year we were really thin.”

Kelly talked about opponents being able to take Smith out of the game last year by running away from him. By the end of the season, they were taking his speed away by running right at him, not necessarily the traits you want from a Will linebacker.



When we’re taking the time to talk about Brian Kelly’s facial hair, you know we’re out of things to talk about. But BK’s a better candidate for the clean-shaven look, especially as he goes out on the talking tour these next few months.

Adios, goatee.


After chaotic spring, offensive roles can come into focus

Everett Golson, Mike McGlinchey, Isaac Rochell

Spring practice is in the books. The Blue-Gold game is history. (Not here, we’ll talk about that thing all week…)

So after a frantic few months in the Gug, the focus of Notre Dame’s rebuilt offensive staff can change from planning practices to… planning—well, just about everything.

Brian Kelly‘s three-headed monster atop the offensive meeting room can stop and breathe for a bit. With new OC and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford still unpacking his things in South Bend, the man charged with turning the room upside down can now go about officially finding his place in a room that’s likely—and understandably—plenty cluttered right now.

The 2015 calendar year has been a whirlwind for Sanford. A new job, a new son, a new house in a new city—not to mention learning a new offense.

So while we’ve spent most of our time wondering about playcalling duties next fall and Mike Denbrock‘s role in the offense now that he’s associate head coach, Kelly spent some time after the Blue-Gold game clarifying how things will look moving forward, pumping the brakes on any official gameday duties with over four months before the Irish take their next meaningful snap.

“I said this I think when we were here [introducing Sanford], that his focus right now is we’ve got two very, very good quarterbacks,” Kelly explained on Saturday. “His focus is on our quarterbacks right now and learning the offense and that’s job one. The next job will be obviously continue to grow and learn the offense so there’s play calling opportunities there. Mike Denbrock right now is running the entire offense. Those are his calls and his decisions to make.”

For some, that news is a shocker and feels a little bit like walking back on the bold declarations both Kelly and Denbrock made after Sanford’s move to South Bend became official. But logistically, the objectives of the spring and where Notre Dame’s offense needs to be next fall are two incredibly different things. So credit Kelly (not to mention Sanford and Denbrock) for understanding that and getting the entire offensive staff and personnel to buy in.

Job one for Sanford was the most important one of any staff member working for Kelly: Engaging both Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. Make them both believe they could and should win the starting job, while also making them better quarterbacks.

We heard about the lengths Sanford went to do that, grading and breaking down every practice snap. We also saw some of that progress on Saturday from both quarterbacks.

Golson displayed much better technique in the zone-read game with vastly-improved footwork and depth in the pocket while also protecting the ball as a runner. He made quick decisions and some solid throws moving the chains. After a head-scratching opening throw by Zaire, the challenger did all you could ask of him, dropping a dime on a perfect deep throw to Will Fuller while carrying the load as a runner and ball carrier.

Just as important, after 15 practices, you have to feel like the odds of both Golson and Zaire spending next season as Notre Dame quarterbacks got considerably better, Task A, B and C for Sanford if we’re being honest about spring’s true objectives.

“Mike [Sanford] really is somebody capable of doing all of those things, but not at this time. His focus right now is working with the quarterbacks. And so when we put a timetable on it, right now I’m more ready to be the play caller until all these guys are in a position where they can take more of a role offensively. That’s just a matter of where we are right now because most of Mike’s time has been developing the quarterbacks.”

Sanford’s got four months to learn the offense and settle into his role—whatever that may be on Saturday. Until then, it was all about making sure both Golson and Zaire improved.

In their first televised dress rehearsal, things went well. On a Saturday where Alabama’s offense turned the ball over six times in their spring game, the Irish’s only turnover came when Kelly told safety Max Redfield the play in advance.

So settle in, coaches. Because come Texas on September 5, that’s when things will start counting.

Irish land commitment from blue-chip OL Liam Eichenberg


While the Blue-Gold game captured most of the headlines this weekend, the biggest victory for Brian Kelly was over Urban Meyer on the recruiting trail. On Sunday, touted Ohio offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg committed to the Irish, just hours after leaving an unofficial visit to Columbus.

In Eichenberg, some believe the Irish have one of the country’s top players. 247 Sports views him as the No. 17 overall player in the country. While Rivals’ current evaluations only have him a 3-star talent, Eichenberg has an elite offer list, choosing Notre Dame over programs like Alabama, Florida State, Michigan and Miami.

The Cleveland, St. Ignatius product took to Twitter to announce his decision:

Eichenberg is another big recruiting victory for Harry Hiestand, who out-dueled Meyer and offensive line coach Ed Warinner for Eichenberg—one of the state of Ohio’s top offensive linemen. Notre Dame already has Ohio’s No. 1 lineman in the fold, tackle Tommy Kraemer, and Eichenberg turned down a serious recruiting pitch from Meyer this weekend to decide to spend his next four years in South Bend not Columbus.

Kelly made the news unofficially official via Twitter, putting an exclamation point on a weekend that showcased the Irish’s strength along the offensive line. That style of play and coaching from Hiestand, was a big part of Eichenberg deciding to commit to Notre Dame, according to Tom Loy of Irish 247.

“I’d say Coach Hiestand played a large part,” Eichenberg told Irish 247. “Along with him being a great coach and having many years of experience, he truly cares about his players. He knows what it takes to become the best offensive lineman.

“He didn’t annoy me or direct message me [on Twitter] every day. We just talked every other week and sometimes he would come visit me at school. The hand written letters honestly meant a lot more than some people may know. Thinking about having the opportunity to play for a coach who sculpted Zack Martin gives me chills.”

Eichenberg is a key building block as the Irish look to reload along the offensive line this recruiting cycle. He’s Notre Dame’s sixth commitment in the 2016 class.