When Tony Alford left Notre Dame to join Urban Meyer’s staff at Ohio State there was a collective groan let out across the Notre Dame fan base. Notre Dame was losing its most beloved assistant coach since Meyer himself and their top recruiter. Four games into the 2015 season, it looks as though Notre Dame hasn’t skipped a beat with Autry Denson roaming the Notre Dame sidelines and working his magic for the Irish once again.
Twenty years ago Denson emerged from a crowded backfield as a true freshman out of Florida and ascended to the top of the Irish depth chart at running back. Four years later Dennson left Notre Dame as the program’s all-time leading rusher. In his first season as running backs coach for his alma mater, Denson could have a hand in rewriting the Notre Dame history books again with converted wide receiver CJ Prosise off to a record setting pace.
Prosise, a player on his third position in four years in his first year of tutelage under Denson, has already run for 600 yards and 6 touchdowns in four games. While early season projections are hardly scientific, that pace projected out over the course of a 12 game season would put Prosise at 1,800 yards and 18 touchdowns – the former of which would obliterate the Notre Dame single season rushing record currently held by Vagas Ferguson at 1,437 in 1979. The 18 touchdowns would also push him one past Ferguson and Allen Pinkett who share the record at 17.
All of this from a player who started his career on defense and came into the 2015 season with just 10 career carries. Four games into his career as a running back it’s safe to say this is one of the most successful position change experiments of the Brian Kelly Era.
How much of Prosise’s success is due to his natural ability and how much can be attributed to Denson’s coaching remains to be seen, but given Prosise’s meteoric rise, Denson’s guidance simply can’t be ignored – especially when you consider that Prosise isn’t the only Irish back performing at a high level.
Brian Kelly credited Denson with contributing to Prosise’s success following their blowout of UMass. “Autry Denson does a great job. He’s our all-time leading rusher here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said.. “He’s able to have conversations about the position that are real in a way that he’s played the position, so he can really impact him with a lot of knowledge, so that’s been very helpful in his learning curve.”
Prosise isn’t the only back that Denson is mentoring though. After Notre Dame lost Tarean Folston for the season in the opener against Texas, Notre Dame’s running back depth chart behind Prosise was suddenly filled by a pair of true freshmen – Josh Adams and Dexter Williams – one of which (Adams) was coming off a serious knee injury suffered during his prep senior season a year ago.
This past weekend, both frosh showed off why they both came to Notre Dame as 4-star prospects and how good of a job the Irish coaching staff, Denson included, has done in preparing them for action. Adams notched the first 100 yard game of his career with 133 yards on 13 carries highlighted by a 70 yard touchdown while Williams picked up 48 of his own including the first touchdown of his career.
In the spring time no one expected either Adams or Williams to be needed as much as they have been but Folston’s injury and Greg Bryant’s academic issues that prompted his transfer to ASA College of Miami have thrust both into more prominent roles than previously expected. Denson and Notre Dame went from having two junior tailbacks with plenty of experience at the top of the depth chart to having a converted wide receiver and two true freshmen. Even with the setbacks, however, the Notre Dame running game is performing better than it has at any time in the Brian Kelly era.
Denson’s impact has been felt on the recruiting trail as well. Following Alford’s departure for Ohio State, Denson was integral in securing the signature of Williams on National Signing Day. Denson is credited with the commitments of both running back Tony Jones and safety Spencer Perry.
It’s still very early in his Notre Dame coaching career, but the early returns on Denson as Notre Dame’s running backs coach are all very positive and the future of the Irish backfield looks as bright as it did back in the fall of 1995.