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.