Notre Dame entered the 2015 season with just one experienced running back and the by the time they took on Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl they were relying on a true freshman who suffered a serious knee injury in high school. In between CJ Prosise topped 1,000 yards and Josh Adams set a Notre Dame freshman rushing record.
Going into 2016, Prosise is getting ready for his first NFL Training Camp with the Seattle Seahawks after leaving for the NFL with a 5th year of eligibility on the table. Tarean Folston returns from the torn ACL he suffered in the season opener against Texas though and the Irish have built back up their stable of backs on the recruiting trail.
Here’s where the Irish backs are better, worse, or the same as last year.
Notre Dame 2016 Running Back Depth Chart
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Depth. Last year Notre Dame only had four running backs on scholarship that Brian Kelly and staff actively recruited out of high school. A fifth – Josh Anderson – earned a scholarship as a former walk-on. A sixth – Justin Brent – was still learning the position and was headed for a red-shirt season. Of those four other backs on the opening day roster, two were true freshmen, one was a part time wide receiver, and the only one with any experience was lost for the season on the first drive of the opener.
Notre Dame lost Prosise to the NFL, but gets Tarean Folston back from injury and added a pair of backs in this most recent recruiting class – Tony Jones Jr and Deon McIntosh. This year’s depth chart features three running backs with game experience, the two true frosh, and the steady Anderson. Overall, Notre Dame is deeper at running back this year.
Folston’s return shouldn’t be overlooked – even with the emergence of Adams. At this time last year, the Florida native was considered to be heads and shoulders above any other back on the roster. Had he stayed healthy last year there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t have put up monster numbers.
Where Brent fits into the mix will be interesting to watch as well. He made some strides in the spring, but with more bodies around him this year he could get lost in the mix.
Experience. Not only is Notre Dame deeper, they are far more experienced and well-rounded in 2016. For much of last year, Notre Dame relied on a converted wide receiver and a pair of true freshmen at running back. Baring multiple injuries, Notre Dame will be much more experienced at the position this season.
Short Yardage. Prosise and Josh Adams were better than expected last year, but weren’t the most effective short yardage backs. That is an area where Tarean Folston thrived in 2014 and a role he figures to excel at again this season. Folston is the best between the tackles runner on the roster and while he doesn’t have the home run potential Adams possesses, his ability to move the chains in short yardage situations will keep drives alive that stalled last year.
Pass Protection. As a converted wide receiver, pass protection was not CJ Prosise’s strongest trait. Adams and Dexter Williams didn’t excel in this department in 2015 either just like most freshman backs. Folston’s pass protection skills are one of the reasons he ascended the Notre Dame depth chart so quickly early on in his career. A full off-season to work with Autry Denson on their blocking will only help Williams and Adams here as well.
Receiving Skills. Folston comes into the season with just 23 career receptions. Adams hauled in just seven as a true freshman. Williams first catch this season will be the first of his collegiate career. That’s not a lot of production in the receiving department for this year’s running back corps. Prosise caught 26 passes for 308 yards last year alone.
This could be an area where Williams finds a niche in this year’s offense. Adams and Folston aren’t known for their receiving skills. Leaving the door open for Williams. Regardless, Notre Dame’s running backs aren’t as strong in the passing game as they were in 2015 – at least going into the season.
Big Play Ability. Notre Dame lost CJ Prosise’s home run skills when he left early for the NFL Draft but with Adams back and Dexter Williams a year older, the Irish still have plenty of home run potential. Adams broke a Notre Dame record with his 98 yard touchdown run against Wake Forest and added runs of 70 and 62 against UMass and Stanford. Dexter Williams longest run last year was just 14 yards, but his pedigree suggests that we should expect much longer runs from him in the future.
Folston hasn’t been a home run threat in the past. His career long is 43 yards and that came during the first month of his freshman season. In 2014, Folston’s season long run was just 26 yards in 175 attempts. With Adams and Williams though, Notre Dame still has backs capable of taking any handoff the distance. Just ask David Shaw and the Stanford defense.
Even with losing a 1,000 yard rusher in CJ Prosise, Notre Dame is better off at the running back position in 2016 than there were in 2015. The Irish have more scholarship backs and should be improved across the board. The one area where Prosise truly excelled – his home run potential – should be replaced more than adequately by Josh Adams. Notre Dame doesn’t have a proven receiving threat out of the backfield right now, but even still Notre Dame’s running backs are a strength in 2016. LOok for Notre Dame to rely on its stable of backs – especially early on in 2016 – as a green wide receiving corps gets its footing.
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