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Last Look: Running Game

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The season is over. Before we turn our attention to recruiting and some of our offseason plans that’ll surely lead into an interesting spring, let’s take a look at the final stats from the 2015 Fighting Irish as we reach some final conclusions on the season that was.

We’ll start with the running game. Notre Dame’s ground attack was its most potent in the Kelly era, both the cumulative 2,699 rushing yards and the astonishing 5.6 yards per rush the team averaged, eighth-best in the country. Big plays certainly buoyed those totals—Josh Adams, C.J. Prosise and DeShone Kizer each had touchdown runs of 79-yards or longer and Brandon Wimbush added a 58-yard scamper as well.

All of this came from a depth chart not many expected to see. Exiting fall, C.J. Prosise looked like a contingency plan, a wildcard added to a two-deep of Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. That duo took the field for a total of three carries, Bryant exiting the program over the summer and Folston ending his season on the third carry of the year.

That didn’t stop the rushing attack. Prosise managed to be the first Irish back to break 1,000 yards since Cierre Wood did it in 2011. Adams set a freshman record for rushing yards. And Kizer set a school record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. Not too shabby.

Let’s take a closer look at the stats and hand out some end of the year awards.

Rush Totals

 

 

 

 

 

 

MVP: C.J. Prosise. The late surge by Josh Adams makes this a much tougher decision than I expected—especially with Prosise touching the football only 16 times after Halloween. But that would undervalue the first two-thirds of the season, and Prosise was a star for the Irish essentially through the USC game, going on a three-game run of averaging over nine-yards a carry while also making huge gains in the passing game as well.

Prosise was dynamic in the open field. He was tough to tackle. And his versatility was likely what led to the decision to head to the NFL instead of playing out his eligibility. He still has room for improvement as a running back, especially between the tackles and picking up the tough yardage. But he supplied a season’s worth of big plays in his limited action, a triumphant debut season as a running back.

 

Biggest Disappointment: Tarean Folston’s knee injury. You can only wonder what Notre Dame’s running game would’ve looked like had Folston lasted more than three carries. The Irish’s most natural runner, Folston doesn’t have the big-play speed that Prosise and Adams enjoy, but his vision and elusiveness would’ve been really impactful behind the Irish offensive line.

Prosise’s departure likely impacted Folston more than anybody else. With Adams and Prosise both returning, Folston’s role in the backfield likely would’ve made things cluttered. Now the Irish will enjoy a two-back platoon with sophomore Dexter Williams fighting for carries after showing some skills as a true freshman.

Folston’s rehab is on track, the rising senior is already running as he enters the fifth month of his recovery. He won’t likely do much in spring practice, but he should be ready to cut loose during summer, a critical time for his reemergence in the backfield.

 

Biggest Surprise: DeShone Kizer’s record-breaking season. If you had DeShone Kizer as the quarterback to break the touchdown record for his position, I’ll check your pockets for Biff’s sports almanac from Back to the Future 2. Kizer’s abilities as a runner were the big surprise of the season. They allowed the Irish offense to continue churning after Malik Zaire‘s injury, with Kizer showing a great feel for the read option and better-than-expected speed.

As a big-bodied 23o-pound runner, Kizer turned into Notre Dame’s short-yardage weapon of choice. He allowed the Irish to add an additional blocker to the box, neutralizing some of the defense’s advantages in addition to his size allowing him to fall-forward for tough yards. No, it didn’t pay off on the two-point play against Clemson late in the game. But Kizer’s 10 scores eclipsed a team record held by Tony Rice and Rick Mirer. Not too bad for a kid who was collecting dust as the No. 3 quarterback last spring.

 

Brightest Future: Josh Adams. Notre Dame’s freshman back might have the highest ceiling of any running back recruited by Brian Kelly. A hidden gem courtesy of an ACL tear suffered midway through his junior season, Adams arrived on campus expected to redshirt and instead set a school record for most yards as a freshman.

Adam’s 835 yards were impressive. He broke loose in his debut against Texas for two scores on five carries. His 70-yard run against UMass hinted at the breakaway speed Kelly and his staff saw when Adams camped in South Bend.

But more important than any highlight was the workload Adams took on when Prosise could no longer go. In the season’s final five games, Adams ran the ball 83 times for 570 yards, averaging 6.9 yards a carry and 114 yards a game against five tough defenses. A true freshman picked up the slack when there was nobody else to carry the load, and Adams produced at an elite level.

With an additional year in a college strength program and another year away from his knee surgery, Adams could have a monster 2016.