Genuine approach has worked for Autry Denson as a coach

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Jim Pry admittedly didn’t do enough research on his fellow assistant coaches when he joined the Bethune-Cookman staff.

When Pry took over as the offensive coordinator for the Wildcats in 2012, he inherited a staff that included Autry Denson as running backs coach. He knew the name, but didn’t realize his career included a school-record 4,318 rushing yards at Notre Dame.

“I'm the coordinator, so he was in my meetings,” Pry said. “I didn't know he was that kind of a star at Notre Dame until probably two or three weeks after I had been here. I liked him so much before that, it didn't really matter.”

Denson, who reportedly will be named Notre Dame’s new running backs coach, worked with Pry during the 2012-13 seasons before leaving for the same position at Miami of Ohio. Few coaches have worked with Denson more in his short coaching career than Pry did at the FCS-level school in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“The thing you like about Autry is he's very genuine, a great person, and an excellent coach,” Pry said.

Pry, whose coaching career includes stops at Buffalo, Duke and Illinois, was already in his 40th year and at his 12th school when he arrived at Bethune-Cookman. Denson was starting his second season at the school and his third year of coaching.

Pry has seen plenty of coaches trying to figure out how to succeed in the business. It didn’t take Denson long to impress.

"I've been in this for 43 years and he's one of the greatest people I've ever been around,” Pry said. “He's a genuine person and a genuine coach. He's a great coach. Players love him.”

Before Pry arrived, Denson had already directed a productive running game for the Wildcats. In 2011, Bethune-Cookman averaged 259 yards on the ground, which finished ranked No. 5 in the entire FCS.

At the heart of that rushing attack was sophomore Isidore Jackson. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound back started the first eight games of his career that season and rolled to 866 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.

The next season, Pry arrived and the running game continued to thrive. Jackson upped his output to 1,069 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns.

"He improved the guys over the years he was here,” Pry said. “The one thing that Autry did that was just terrific — and all coaches try to do it, but he was great at it — was he would manage the kid as a player, and manage the kid as a person at the same time. That was special."

Denson’s ability to relate to his players aided his coaching efforts. He was young enough to call on his Notre Dame career from 1995-98 and explain the transition he had to go through to find success both on the field and in the classroom. His four seasons in the NFL added to his credibility.

“He was coached by good guys, and you could see that a lot of times he relied on what he had gone through and relayed it to his own players,” Pry said. “It had a tremendous influence on him."

Replacing former running backs coach Tony Alford as Notre Dame’s lead recruiter in Florida could be the biggest task facing Denson. But his ties to the state — playing at Nova High School in Davie, Fla., and coaching four years in the Sunshine State — should allow for an easier transition.

Throw in the fact that he made the choice to attend the same school he’ll be pitching to recruits, and Denson should be in position to be a successful recruiter for the Irish.

“He's a very verbal person. He's a genuine person,” Pry said. “You can see that when a guy sits in a living room recruiting a kid in front of his parents. They can tell if you're being genuine or if you're just blowing smoke. Autry was a guy that was always genuine and people knew it, therefore he got a lot of the recruits he went after."

At Notre Dame, Denson will be tasked with coaching a relatively young running back corps. Returning starter Tarean Folston, a junior-to-be, is the only back to have played meaningful time in multiple seasons. Redshirt sophomore Greg Bryant has yet to fulfill the five-star status some gave him as a recruit. A pair of incoming freshmen, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, will be joining the team in the summer.

Head coach Brian Kelly has chosen to rotate multiple running backs in past seasons at Notre Dame and will likely do the same in 2015. Pry, who said his offense is comparable to Kelly’s, saw Denson manage a trio of running backs in the 2013 season. Three different backs rushed for at least 400 yards each and combined to average 243 yards.

"Autry was very influential to the running backs,” Pry said. “We're a run-the-ball team first. We had a stable of running backs, and he had to do one of the hardest things in keeping all those guys happy. He did a great job.”

Spring is near

Spring football is less than a month away for the Irish.

Notre Dame released several important dates in the coming months for the football program. The Irish will open spring practice on March 18. The spring session will wrap up on April 18, the original date for the Blue-Gold Game.

But with Notre Dame Stadium under construction for the Campus Crossroads, a site for the annual scrimmage has yet to be announced.

“I think the destination is probably going to be somewhere here on campus,” Kelly said on National Signing Day earlier this month. “We just don’t know where it’s going to be right now.”

Notre Dame will host its Coaches Clinic March 26-28 and Pro Day on March 31.

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame running back Autry Denson celebrates his touchdown run in a 1997 game with LSU. (SBT File Photo)