Autry Denson was one of the best running backs coaches Notre Dame has had in terms of player development and pure coaching in many year. If there was an area where the Irish great didn’t excel under him though, it was on the recruiting trail. With Denson moving on as head coach at Charleston Southern, Notre Dame turns its attention to finding his replacement. They will need that replacement to continue to the stellar work Denson put in on the gridiron while drastically improving upon what Desnon accomplished on the recruiting trail.
As a coach, Autry Denson did an amazing job with the Notre Dame running backs. In his first season on the job, Denson oversaw the transition of CJ Prosise from wide receiver to running back to 3rd round NFL Draft pick in a single season. He helped guide Josh Adams to over 3,000 career rushing yards. He helped produce two 1,000+ yard rushers (Prosise and Josh Adams) and the program’s freshman rushing record holder (Adams). Most amazingly, Denson led a running backs room that did not lose a single fumble in over three seasons.
Yes, you read that right. Notre Dame running backs have not lost a single fumble since November 21, 2015 when Josh Adams lost one at the goal line against Boston College in Fenway Park. Think about all that has happened to Notre Dame since then. Even during that disastrous 2016 campaign that ended with a 4-8 record during which everything went wrong, no Notre Dame running back lost a fumble.
For all of the good that Denson accomplished on the field though, Notre Dame struggled to land elite, blue chip running backs during his tenure at Notre Dame. Since Denson was added to the staff, Notre Dame has not landed a single consensus 4-star running back. Both CJ Holmes and most recently Kyren Williams were 4-star recruits on one service or another, but Notre Dame has not landed a single consensus 4-star back.
- 2016: Tony Jones Jr & Deon McIntosh (Jones was 4-star on 247 but not Rivals)
- 2017: CJ Holmes (4-star on Rivals but not 247)
- 2018: Jahmir Smith & C’Bo Flemister
- 2019: Kyren Williams (4-star on 247, 3 star on Rivals)
Of those six running backs Notre Dame has landed the last four years, none were considered “can’t miss”, blue chip recruits when they signed. Two of the six are no longer with the program as well. Both Deon McIntosh and CJ Holmes were dismissed from the University at the beginning of 2018. The lack of speed and dismissals at the position forced Notre Dame to move Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis to running back in the spring with mixed results to date.
For whatever reason, Notre Dame just didn’t land elite running backs during Denson’s tenure. That has to change with the next running backs coach that Notre Dame looks to. The Irish are poised to have strong offensive lines for years based on how well they’ve recruited and if Jeff Quinn does his jobs, those lines should be elite. If Notre Dame had recruited more running backs like Dexter Williams over the last few years, the recipe would be there for running games like the record breaking one we saw in 2017 for the next four years.
The good news for Notre Dame is that running back is a position where it is easier to contribute early so if Notre Dame can land a running backs coach that is an elite recruiter, they will have a good chance to land an elite running back in the class of 2020 who likely could see the field early.
The next running backs coach needs to do more than just recruit though. Jafar Armstrong is the closest thing Notre Dame has to a breakaway threat at running back but he is still learning the position after converting from wide receiver last spring. He still has a lot of work to do on that front. The next RB coach will have to pick up where Denson left off there and is one area where we know Denson was top rate. The work he did with Prosise in a short time period was remarkable.
One obvious name that fans have tossed around already is former Notre Dame running backs coach Tony Alford. Alford left Notre Dame following the 2014 season for the same position at Ohio State under Urban Meyer. Alford has been stuck at the same position since then, however, and with Meyer moving on his long term fit on Ryan Day’s staff might not be as stable. While at Notre Dame, Alford was responsible for bringing in Josh Adams and Dexter Williams in the class of 2015 alone.
As of now, Alford might be more of a speculative candidate for the job though since it remains to be seen if Kelly would welcome back a coach who left for a lateral move or if Alford would make another lateral move. There is no question, however, that Notre Dame recruited running backs at a much higher level under Alford.
Whoever Brian Kelly does add to his staff to fill Denson’s role, it is very clear that he needs that coach to be a much stronger recruiting while also maintaining the elite level of coaching that Denson did with the Irish running backs.