SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It comes with the caveat of just being spring practice, but no Notre Dame player did more to impress his coaches and teammates over the last few weeks than C.J. Prosise.
The rising senior slot receiver cross-trained at running back in March and April and wound up spending most of his time there, which culminated with a 12-carry, 64-yard showing in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. Those 12 carries were more than incumbent backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant received (nine) during the scrimmage.
“He'll get every opportunity to take over a starting position, whether it's at wide receiver or whether it's at running back,” coach Brian Kelly said. “… I’m not going to paint him into any particular position or category. If he's the best running back, he's going to start. If he's the best wide receiver, he's going to start.
“It's our job to get the best 11 players on the field, and right now it's hard to make the case that he's not one of the best 11.”
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Notre Dame figured Prosise would succeed at running back, but by all indications, he’s thrived in his hybrid role. During an open scrimmage earlier this month, he ripped off a 70-yard touchdown run, flashing the kind of explosive speed that led to him having five plays of 40 or more yards last year (tied for the team lead with Will Fuller).
But Prosise was only a slot receiver last year, and his carries came solely on jet sweeps — one of which he took for a 50-yard touchdown against LSU. Notre Dame coaches wanted to get the ball in his hands more, and with only two scholarship running backs on the roster for spring practice, they decided to test him there even though the Woodberry Forest, Va. native never played running back before.
And yet, Prosise didn’t look like a greenhorn at his new position this spring.
“He’s a natural runner,” offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said. “He presses the line of scrimmage well, he sees things, and then he plays with good pad level, which is tough for a tall guy. I’ve been really impressed with CJ and I just think that’s been a great storyline for our offense is just the depth that he brings and the quality he brings and the versatility that he brings to that position.”
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Sanford said the most impressive aspect of Prosise’s game is his instinct to cut inside, which he said is rare for someone just learning the running back position. Prosise credited it to his wide receivers coach, Mike Denbrock.
“It’s probably me hearing coach Denbrock’s voice in my head, like ‘get up field, get up field,’ “ Prosise said. “That’s probably what it is.
“I know it’s college football and these guys are fast and I can’t just out-run everybody. I’m just going to put my head down and go in there.”
The thing is, the 220-pound Prosise just might be able to out-run everybody. On that 70-yard touchdown run in the earlier scrimmage, he blew past Max Redfield — one of the better athletes on Notre Dame — and cruised into the end zone. He got to the edge and turned the corner against a speedy LSU defense on that 50-yard Music City Bowl touchdown, too.
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“He’s faster than he looks,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “He’s one of those rare guys that has another gear. When he flicks in to it, there’s really nothing you could do.”
While Kelly won't label Prosise as a receiver or running back, he’ll wind up with one of those as his primary position next year. Figuring out where to concentrate him is a good problem to have, given the depth at both positions — Folston and Bryant at running back, and Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter Jr. in the slot — is solid.
But one thing does appear certain: Prosise will play an important role in Notre Dame’s playoff push next year, no matter where he plays.
“C.J.'s as good a player as we've got on the offensive football team right now, in my opinion,” Denbrock said. “He's versatile, he could play anywhere we put him. … You saw what he can do if you hand him the ball, and we saw in the LSU game.
“Every time we put him in a position where he can make a play, he pretty much goes and makes it.”