Autry Denson makes immediate splash recruiting for Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Easy isn’t the right word.

But Autry Denson can understand why you’d choose it. After all, in his first season as Notre Dame’s running backs coach, the Florida native coaxed seven players from his home state to his alma mater. He developed a 1,000-yard rusher (C.J. Prosise) and the most prolific freshman running back in program history (Josh Adams), and somehow, his recruiting haul was more impressive.

On Wednesday morning, in the fading twilight of his first Irish recruiting cycle, Denson stood at a podium in front of a monogram-checkered backdrop and provided a polite correction.

Not easy. Natural.

“I’m just blessed to be in this position,” Denson said with a well-deserved grin, roughly 15 minutes after Orlando linebacker Jonathan Jones inked with Notre Dame instead of Michigan. “For me, I’ll say it’s natural. I’ll never say it’s easy. I get to represent something that I live. I’m talking about things I’ve been through. It gives me obviously an advantage from that standpoint, and it makes things a lot more natural to go and talk to them about things that I know firsthand and not things that I’ve heard.”

A little more than two decades ago, Denson was the talent-filled Floridian heading west to Notre Dame. Four years later, he was the storied program’s all-time leading rusher.

Now, he’s a walking, talking, hard-charging Notre Dame success story.

It’s a story, inevitably, that all his recruits will learn.

“I like to call it the Google effect,” Denson said. “These guys are born into technology, so it helps when they can go on (the internet) and see that you’ve done the things that you’re asking them to do. You’ve walked in the same places. You’ve sat in the same seats that they have. So it does help.”

On Wednesday, Jonathan Jones chose to sit in that seat. So did running backs Tony Jones Jr. and Deon McIntosh and offensive lineman Parker Boudreaux. A month earlier, early enrollees Kevin Stepherson, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill followed suit.

Denson provided living proof that the grass can be greener away from home.

“He goes beyond football,” Jonathan Jones said. “Sometimes he would just call you up to talk about life. He keeps it real. You can genuinely tell he wants the best for that player. He told me straight up, if I think Notre Dame isn’t the best place for me, that’s completely fine. He sells the school — the school sells itself — but he knows all the facts about the school. He lays it down on the table. You can’t really beat that.”

To be sure, Denson wasn’t the only recruiter responsible for pursuing the seven Floridians. Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand played a primary role in swaying Boudreaux, and tight ends coach Scott Booker and wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock plucked Stepherson out of Jacksonville. The Irish staff bull-rushed the Sunshine State and came away with a heavy haul.

But Denson was a common thread — a Notre Dame man on the hunt for kindred spirits.

“A Notre Dame young man, we will get him every day of the week,” Denson said. “It does not matter where they’re at. We do have a national footprint so we go all over. So where a lot of schools geographically get the best players (in their area), we’re going into everybody else’s backyard and getting the best Notre Dame student-athletes. I love it.”

As he should. The same trait that propelled Denson over the pylon continues to pay dividends in creaky high school stadiums on muggy Florida Fridays.

He wants to win. Always. Forever. Again.

“When you’re hired, you begin immediately,” Denson explained. “You don’t have a lot of time to think, and there’s no down time. It’s kind of baptism by fire. Most coaches are former athletes, so you like competing. You just kind of adjust. You get thrown into the fire and you get raised up to the expectations that are set for you.”

Denson competed, and he expected to win — even when representing the Irish in enemy territory. That was the case with Ben Davis, a five-star linebacker whose father, Wayne Davis, remains Alabama’s all-time leading tackler.

Still, Denson expected to win, right up until the moment the legacy linebacker inked with nearby Alabama.

“Man, we let one get away, didn’t we?” Denson said on Wednesday with a pained smirk. “It’s competition. If that’s the best, then put me there. That’s just my mindset.

“If it’s tough to get a kid out of Alabama, then send me there seven days a week and twice on Sunday, so that we can go out and we can get a kid. For a Notre Dame kid, I don’t care where he is. I can’t wait to get back there.”

Fortunately for Denson, the recruiting cycle never ceases. There’s always another fight, another class, another kid.

It isn’t easy, even if it looks that way. But did the first-year coach ever think about taking things more slowly and easing into his role?

“I don’t believe in easing,” Denson said flatly. “I’m blessed. It’s not me. Coaching, to me, is my ministry, and I thank God for all the young men that trusted me enough and the parents that gave me the opportunity.”


Twitter: @mikevorel

Autry Denson, running backs coach, during Notre Dame football media day on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015, at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN via FTP