It’s not a coincidence that Notre Dame’s best offensive season under Brian Kelly featured the sixth-year Irish coach’s best rushing attack.
Notre Dame finished the 2015 season averaging 5.63 yards per carry, the eighth-best rate among FBS teams. The previous averages in Kelly’s tenure: 4.28 (2014, 70th), 4.46 (2013, 53rd), 4.87 (2012, 30th), 4.82 (2011, 26th) and 3.98 (2010, 77th). 2015 obliterated that downward trend line, and redshirt junior C.J. Prosise had a lot to do with it.
Prosise led the Irish with 1,029 yards on 157 carries (6.55 YPC) and 11 touchdowns despite having never played running back before last spring. He announced his decision to turn pro a day after the Fiesta Bowl and leaves a sizable hole to fill in Notre Dame’s 2016 offense.
That’s the bad news. The good news is Josh Adams will be back, as well as a healthy Tarean Folston. And whoever plays quarterback — DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire or Brandon Wimbush — will contribute to what should remain a successful ground game. But focusing on the running backs, there's plenty of reasons to be optimistic for 2016.
Adams rushed for a Notre Dame freshman record 838 yards on 116 carries (7.22 yards per carry), and with Prosise largely sidelined for Notre Dame’s final five games, he carried 82 times for 573 yards (6.99 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. His explosive, instinctive ability was one of more positive surprises for Notre Dame last fall, given he was a lightly-recruited three-star member of 2015’s recruiting class coming off a torn ACL in high school.
It was worth noting during preseason practice — before anyone knew how good Prosise would be or that Folston was destined for a season-ending injury in Week 1 — that Adams impressed coaches with his ability to pick up pass protection concepts. It was clear going into the season he was Notre Dame’s No. 3 running back, despite fellow freshman Dexter Williams entering Notre Dame with a better evaluation from recruiting websites.
Adams ripped off runs of 62, 70 and 98 yards, with the latter setting a Notre Dame record and being punctuated by the Warrington, Pa.’s vicious stiff-arm of a Wake Forest defender. Even had Prosise’s ankle been 100 percent for the Fiesta Bowl, it’s likely he and Adams would’ve had at least an even split of carries.
“He became such a confident back,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “His ability to break tackles, to create big plays, and not only that but Josh has developed as a running back but also as a special teams guy — you see him out there on special teams doing his job and doing a great job. Josh has done a tremendous job this year. I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s a great guy and he cares about his team.”
Adams’ record-setting ascendence may not have been possible, though, without Folston tearing his ACL on his third carry of the season. The junior looked primed to build on back-to-back solid seasons in which he totaled 1,359 yards and nine touchdowns on 263 attempts (5.2 yards per carry). His receiving and pass protection skills improved, too, but all the hope about him becoming a complete running back dissipated when he planted awkwardly trying to bounce a run outside against Texas Sept. 5.
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Folston’s recovery process hasn’t been probed as much as that of quarterback Malik Zaire, but the Cocoa, Fla. native was seen jogging around University of Phoenix Stadium before the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl. It’s highly unlikely Folston will do much during spring practice, but it’d be a positive if Notre Dame could get him back to full-go for preseason camp in August.
“When he comes back healthy, I’m pretty sure he’ll be better than ever,” Folston’s brother, James — a Pitt defensive end — told CSNChicago.com in November. “He’ll come back stronger. I know with the mindset he has, I know he’s trying to.”
Behind fairly established backs in Adams and Folston are Williams, who displayed some quickness but was largely limited to garbage time carries in 2015, and three-star 2016 verbal commits Tony Jones (Bradenton, Fla.) and Deon McIntosh (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). Ideally, both those recruits could redshirt in 2016, but if the 2015 season taught us anything, it’s to expect a next man in, and the next man in behind him, to have to contribute.
Two other things to consider for 2016, too: First, running backs coach Autry Denson did an outstanding job developing a pair of inexperienced players — Prosise at the position, Adams as a college player — into immediate playmakers in the Irish offense. Second, Adams and Prosise ran behind an offensive line anchored by left tackle Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin, one which opened holes for gains of at least five yards 45 percent of the time, the fourth-highest rate nationally. But offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has an impressive track record of developing offensive linemen at Notre Dame, and deserves the benefit of the doubt to figure out how to replace two stalwarts from his unit.