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.
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.
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.