Every football team has to have a “next man in” mentality — that's the nature of playing a violent sport in which injuries have to be expected. But not every team embraces that cliche like Notre Dame has this fall.
Freshman running back Josh Adams became the next man up in a season of next men up on Saturday at Heinz Field, rushing 20 times for 147 yards and scoring a five-yard touchdown on a fly sweep after redshirt junior C.J. Prosise left the game in the first half. Prosise is considered day-to-day as he undergoes the Notre Dame medical staff’s concussion protocol.
“We’re all prepared for something like that,” Adams said. “God forbid somebody goes down, but we all have the mentality that we need to do our job and we need to stay focused in case something, you never know what could happen.”
Adams earned the game ball for his efforts in Notre Dame’s 42-30 win over Pittsburgh, but credited his strong afternoon to an offense like that made it “easy on me,” he said. But Adams shouldn’t sell himself short — the 6-foot-1, 212 pound lightly-recruited running back from Warrington, Pa., decisively hit the holes opened by his offensive line, and showed an impressive burst through the line of scrimmage into the second level.
“He’s a big, physical kid, keeps his feet moving,” coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s very difficult to tackle. … The physical characteristics of this kid are such that he’s only going to get bigger, faster and stronger and it’s going to be exciting to watch him develop.”
Adams tore his ACL in high school and, as a result, didn’t hold an impressive list of scholarship offers. Only seven programs offered the three-star recruit a scholarship: Notre Dame, Boston College, Penn State, Pitt, Rutgers, Stanford and Temple. Compare that to four-star freshman Dexter Wiliams, who committed to Notre Dame over 15 other scholarship offers from schools like Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Tennessee, Texas A&M and USC.
But Adams separated himself on the depth chart during preseason camp by displaying a knack for picking up Notre Dame’s pass protections, and after Tarean Folston tore his ACL in the first quarter of Sept. 5’s season opener against Texas, Adams slid into a backup role behind Prosise. Not only does Adams possess explosive playmaking ability — he gouged UMass for a 70-yard run at the end of September — but that ability to succeed in pass protection lent plenty of confidence to Kelly that the Irish offense wouldn’t struggle inserting a freshman running back into the mix.
“I just think he came with a pretty good understanding,” Kelly said. “In high school he was asked to block. His system had the running back as part of protections, so he had a little bit of that.
“Then, you know, he's a pretty sharp kid, pretty smart kid, savvy, understands things.”
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Adams displayed that pass pro ability almost immediately after entering the game early in the second quarter Saturday, taking out a blitzing Pitt linebacker who broke free between center Nick Martin and left guard Quenton Nelson. DeShone Kizer threw an incomplete pass on the play, but he wasn’t sacked or pressured into throwing an interception. Four plays later, Kizer hit Torii Hunter Jr. for a 12-yard touchdown.
While Kelly was optimistic both Saturday and Sunday regarding Prosise’s availability for this weekend’s senior day game against Wake Forest, the unpredictability of concussion recoveries means there’s a possibility Adams gets called upon again to take over No. 1 running back duties.
But if and when Prosise does return, Kelly said Adams showed against Pitt he’s worthy of a larger offensive role as Notre Dame continues its push for the College Football Playoff.
“I think he proved to everybody that he's capable against a very good defense in Pittsburgh of getting deserved carries, earned carries,” Kelly said. “He earned that opportunity in this game.”