Offense an easy sell to Notre Dame's C.J. Prosise

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

C.J. Prosise still wonders what kind of safety he could have been at the college level.

Not that the Notre Dame senior slot receiver/running back has a yearning to flip back to the defensive side of the ball.

“When I did play safety, I always wanted to go for the big pick rather than the big hit,” said the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder, who spent his redshirt freshman season practicing in the Irish defensive backfield. “I guess that’s maybe one of the reasons I got moved over.”

He’s hardly alone.

Nineteen of the 44 position players (43 percent) on Notre Dame's two-deeps at the start of spring practice have made at least one position switch, from their recruited position and/or from a position they played initially once they arrived on campus. Three have moved multiple times. For Prosise, it’s more like 1½.

And those are hardly anomalies. Of the 96 players Irish coach Brian Kelly signed between 2010 and 2014 who didn’t eventually transfer as underclassmen or were dismissed from school, 40 percent of them made at least one position switch. That doesn’t include another position-swapper, Amir Carlisle, a transfer from USC.

“I think there’s one particular position that we look at as one that has that flexibility, and that’s the big-skill position,” Kelly explained of his position-switching philosophy. “You’re talking about tight ends, linebacker, safeties, that have that flexibility to move and play other positions.

“Those guys, generally, in the high school ranks are still growing, are still filling out. They haven’t reached that full potential physical yet, so where they are in high school is not necessarily where they might be in college. So there’s a lot more room with that position to morph itself in college than maybe an offensive lineman.”

But even offensive linemen have moved, with early-enrolled freshman defensive line prodigy Jerry Tillery a sparkling example.

Overall, some of the moves have been subtle, like guard to center or defensive end to the interior. The most radical switch during the Kelly Era might also be the most successful — KeiVarae Russell from offensive skill player to cornerback.

Russell, expected to rejoin the Irish in June after a year in academic exile, had 27 days to learn the position in August training camp in 2012 after landing at ND as a running back and working out that summer as a slot receiver. He didn’t play a single down of defensive back during his senior year at Everett (Wash.) Mariner High School, that after reluctantly doubling as a safety his junior year. He played cornerback part-time as a sophomore, essentially against his will.

“I really did hate defense back then,” recalled Russell late in 2012. “When I was a sophomore in high school, my coaches were making me do defensive back drills one day. And I was going lazy through them, hoping it would get me out of playing defense. And the defensive backs coach started yelling at me.

“We weren’t having a very good season to begin with, so eventually they just threw me in there. So those four or five games, none of which I enjoyed, were really all I had played at corner until I came here."

Prosise was an easy sell when he flipped to offense and was even more eager at the chance to sort of double up positions this spring.

Last season, running out of his slot receiver position, Prosise amassed 126 yards on 10 carries and a TD. Seventy-five of those yards on three carries came in the 31-28 Music Bowl ambush of LSU on Dec. 30 with a 50-yard score.

His 10 carries in 2014, to go along with a career-high 29 catches for 516 yards and two TDs, matched the rushing attempts of the rest of the Irish receiving corps combined, distributed between three players — Carlisle, Torii Hunter Jr., and Chris Brown.

“I definitely think throughout the season, they saw I could get the ball in space, that I could make the plays,” Prosise said. “I think LSU was a big moment for me, for my confidence, to let me know that I can do this.”

The Irish coaches were thinking former Irish player and current Detroit Lion Theo Riddick — a running back turned wide receiver turned hybrid player — when they began tinkering with the position share of Prosise.

“I think it was more just a cumulative workload that gave us that,” Kelly said of the staff’s gradual warming up to the spring experiment. “His speed is pretty clear, even against SEC talent.”

The fact that there are only two scholarship running backs on the roster this spring, juniors-to-be Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, made it even more feasible as well as pragmatic.

Freshmen Dexter Williams and Josh Adams arrive in June.

Prosise has been spending his meeting time with the running backs this spring and does individual drills with them. His team periods are spent bouncing back and forth between positions.

His expectation is that in the summer time, his reps will start to shift back toward the wide receiver corps, with the thought that by he’ll have the foundation of fundamentals for playing running back.

“It’s going to allow us to be pretty versatile at that position with him in particular,” associated head coach Mike Denbrock said, “if he understands the ins and outs of our protections, schemes and then understands our passing game enough to go run routes and make plays in the passing game.

“It’s exciting to have a guy who can do both roles in one way, shape or form. It was born out of necessity, out of the depth at running back, but it’s going to pay dividends in the fall. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s improved any more than he has. It’s really exciting.”

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Switching from defense to offense has paid off for Notre Dame slot receiver/running back C.J. Prosise. (SBT File Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES)