SOUTH BEND, Ind. — C.J. Prosise played plenty of different positions during his prep career at Woodberry Forest High School, which sits about 30 minutes outside Charlottesville, Va., where he’ll make his first career start at running back for Notre Dame on Saturday.
Prosise was a star safety — he succeeded former Stanford standout Ed Reynolds at that position in high school — a wide receiver, a punt returner and a kick returner. He played basketball — “He looked like Dwayne Wade,” Woodberry Forest football coach Clint Alexander said — and ran track, too.
So when Notre Dame coaches came to him earlier this year and told him he’d be moving from slot receiver to running back, Prosise was ready for the challenge.
“In my opinion only, the reason why he’s excelled so fast at the running back spot is he’s moved around a little bit, he’s incredibly unselfish, so when they’ve asked him to do something he’s done it,” Alexander told CSNChicago.com. “He didn’t hang his head, he didn’t pout, he didn’t spend two weeks going, Oh man, this is BS, I’m doing so well at receiver, why’d they move me. He just went, okay, so how do I help the team. I think that’s why he’s made the progress he has is he didn’t resist. He said okay, if this is how I can help the team, I’m going to do it.”
The 6-foot, 220-pound Prosise was recruited to Notre Dame as an athlete without a pre-determined position. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco wanted him as a safety — he told Alexander he hadn’t seen any safety run sideline-to-sideline like Prosise did in high school — but Kelly mentioned during the recruiting process he might wind up as a receiver.
“I saw him dunking a basketball at his high school, and I saw this athlete, and I said, I don't know where he's going to play, but we've got to take him,” Kelly recalled. “He's just that good of an athlete. Loved his personality. Again, his makeup, great fit from a great school. We've just got to find a place for him to play.”
After redshirting as a safety his freshman year, Prosise indeed was moved to slot receiver in 2013, where Notre Dame had a red-line need after losing Robby Toma to graduation and Davonte Neal to a transfer. He caught seven passes for 72 yards that year, then built off it with 29 receptions, 516 yards and two touchdowns in 2014.
But in the span of two years, Notre Dame went from having thin depth in the slot to a bulging group of players. Graduate student Amir Carlisle, redshirt sophomore Torii Hunter Jr. and true freshman C.J. Sanders were penciled in at the Z position, while Notre Dame had a need at running back behind Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.
So Prosise — not Carlisle, who had previous experience as a running back — was moved into the backfield, where he instantly impressed coaches with a strong combination of quickness and toughness.
“He just plays the game fast and physical,” Kelly said. “He doesn't think about it. He's not afraid of contact. He's somebody that, whether he's running the ball or he's catching the ball, he's always played that fearless kind of game. I just it's probably more about the way he competes more than anything else.”
Notre Dame expected Prosise to share time with Folston, an established No. 1 running back, this fall. But three plays into Saturday’s game against Texas, Folston suffered a torn ACL that ended his game and season. In stepped Prosise, who carried 20 times for 98 yards in his first game as a running back at any level.
“Never did I think (Folston) would be done for the season,” Prosise said. “It definitely hurt me, and it definitely hurt our team because he’s such a great guy and a great leader for this team but in the same voice I knew I could step up and be the next man in, so I had to come in and do my job.”
Prosise’s job may not be to take 20 carries every Saturday between now and the end of November — Kelly & Co.’s gameplan won’t necessarily involve 50-plus runs as it did against Texas and LSU — but unless freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams pick up the offense ahead of schedule, it’ll be Prosise assuming the No. 1 running back duties vacated by the injured Folston.
The transition to running back hasn’t been without its hitches — there are certain fundamentals and nuances Prosise admitted he’s still picking up — but his experience as a slot receiver in the Irish offense proved invaluable in accelerating the process.
“Why he's been able to move into the position that he is in is because of his physical ability, his maturity, and understanding the offense,” Kelly said. “But it's certainly a work in progress as it related to the fundamentals. (We’re) not seeing some of the things fundamentally that need to continue to grow for him because they could end up hurting us down the road if we don't get better at them. And he knows that too.”
Despite Malik Zaire’s phenomenal home debut throwing the ball — 19/22 passing, 313 yards, three touchdowns — establishing the run remains paramount to the Irish offense. Not only does it allow Zaire to work effectively off play-action, but it also lessens the chances of Notre Dame committing the kind of game-ruining turnovers that burned this offense so badly in 2011, 2013 and 2014.
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Prosise’s task as Notre Dame’s top running back began Saturday night against Texas and will continue Saturday at Virginia, where he estimated about 20 friends and family, as well as Alexander, will be there.
What they’ll see is an athlete whose nomadic existence on both sides of the ball prepared him for the moment.
“I think C.J. can play anywhere on the offensive side of the ball and for him to be able to do it in the fashion he has and make it a little more smooth than a traditional Z would, it’s something that is attributed to him,” Zaire said. “He has the body to do whatever he wants to do. His transition has been pretty clean and it’s only getting better from here.”