FOOTBALL

Prosise runs his way into spotlight at Blue-Gold Game

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Max Redfield’s bruised ego from being on the wrong end of a sideline collision Saturday with C.J. Prosise didn’t temper his effusiveness for where he felt the Notre Dame football team’s most splendid spring surprise might be headed.

Jaylon Smith also marveled at the safety-turned wide receiver-turned burgeoning hybrid star after Prosise bullied his way for a game-high 64 yards on 12 carries as a running back in the 86th-annual Blue Gold Game, the first to be held as a largely invitation-only event at the LaBar Practice Complex.

“He’s faster than he looks,” Smith said of the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Prosise. “He’s one of those rare guys who has another gear. And when he flicks into it, there’s really nothing you can do. He’s very versatile, and I love him. For real.”

Sixth-year head coach Brian Kelly also was feeling the love for a player whose spring shift to running back had its origins in being a safety net for a temporarily thin position, with the hope it might make the senior-to-be slot receiver more dangerous on occasional jet sweeps.

“The guy that keeps jumping out at us is C.J. Prosise,” Kelly said of a player who carried 10 times last season, all from the slot position. “He's really rounding into a guy that you're going to fear. When you turn on the film, you're going to look at him and go, ‘He scares me.’ ”

The scary potential caveat in all of this is that the very set-up of a spring game, right down to the contrived scoring, is concocted to be more mirage than reality.

And that was certainly true Saturday, especially when it came to the both final score —36-34 in favor of the Gold (defense) — and the statistically most-accurate quarterback — fourth-stringer and soon-to-be fifth Montgomery VanGorder (3-for-3, 43 yards, 1 TD).

But no one is questioning the validity of the surge of Prosise, a Swiss Army knife of sorts while playing for Woodberry Forest, a small, all-male boarding school in northern Virginia. His varied duties, however, did not include a single snap at running back.

And now, Notre Dame associate head coach Mike Denbrock, is calling Prosise, “the best offensive player on the team right now.”

The biggest lingering question is what it will look like when the team reconvenes for training camp in August. The original plan was for Prosise to sort of migrate toward wide receiver when freshman running backs Dexter Williams and Josh Adams enrolled and joined established juniors-to-be Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.

But now?

“I really don’t know,” said Prosise, who didn’t seem to be in a big hurry to find out. “But I do know this summer I’m going to be working my butt off.

“If the receivers are out there throwing, I’m going to go out there and throw with them. If the running backs are doing some carries and getting some meshes with the quarterbacks, I’m going to do that too.”

Kelly is leaving his options open for now, when pressed about Prosise’s evolving role.

“I think as we continue to move forward, he'll get every opportunity to take over a starting position, whether it's at wide receiver or whether it's at running back,” he said. “I'm going to play the 11 best players, and whoever the 11 best players are, are going to be on the field.

“So I'm not going to paint him into any particular position or category. If he's the best running back, he's going to start. If he's the best wide receiver, he's going to start. So it's our job to get the best 11 players on the field, and right now it's hard to make the case that he's not one of the best 11.”

Redfield, a spring revelation himself at safety after a late-season demotion in 2014, got run over by Prosise as the two met on the sideline on Saturday at the end of a Prosise run. The junior-to-be has also had to defend Prosise in pass patterns, and had a clear opinion on what position he feels Prosise is more dangerous.

“I would say running back, because his speed and explosiveness gets him to the second level so fast,” Redfield said. “So he’s coming downhill and gaining yards at a really fast pace. It’s hard to stop him at running back.”

Prosise said the last ND player to successfully navigate bouncing between the two roles, current Detroit Lion Theo Riddick, has been in Prosise’s ear throughout the conversion process. Riddick was among Saturday's 3,590 onlookers.

First-year Irish running backs coach Autry Denson, also ND’s all-time leading career rusher, has been a strong influence as well. Prosise, in fact, on his own, scrounged up old game film of Denson from the late ’90s.

“In the month and a half I’ve known the guy, he’s taught me so much about being a running back,” Prosise said. “He taught me the fundamentals and also how to be great. Who else would I really want coaching me up other than the best running back to ever play here?”

The one thing Prosise admitted his can’t do is play quarterback, and wasn’t among the gaggle of players, such as defensive tackle Sheldon Day, campaigning for a shot at the position for the fan-submitted trick play.

“I can’t throw at all,” Prosise offered.

The two quarterbacks who finished the spring the same way they started it — with real aspirations of emerging as the No. 1 option for the Sept. 5 opener with Texas — certainly did throw and with proficiency. And they ran the ball well, too.

Perhaps most pleasing aspect to Kelly, though, on Saturday was that fifth-year senior-to-be Everett Golson and junior-to-be challenger Malik Zaire combined for just one turnover. And they truly did combine on it.

On the designated fan-inspired play, on the first play of the second half, Zaire lined up at quarterback and Golson as a slot receiver.

Zaire first handed off the ball to running back Folston, who then pitched it back to Golson. Meanwhile, Zaire ran the wrong route and turned a shot flat pattern into a deep throw. Golson bought some time, then lofted a deep ball in Zaire’s direction.

But Redfield leaped and caught the ball simultaneously with Zaire, then ripped it out of his hands, paused momentarily to talk smack, then ran 85 yards for a TD on an interception return that occurred after the referee’s whistle blew.

Removing that play, it was close to a statistical and aesthetic standoff. Golson, sans the trick play, went 7-for-14 for 83 yards and ran for 24 yards on nine carries and a rushing TD. Zaire was 8-of-14 for 137 yards and two TDs tosses with 40 yards on four carries on the ground.

“We keep working on each individual and where they need to continue to grow individually,” Kelly said of where the QB audition goes from here. “And then the decision on playing time will take care of itself.

“They can't control that. All they can control is what's in their purview, and that is the fundamentals of what we've asked them to work on. The rest they can't really worry about. It's not their call.”

None of the four quarterbacks, redshirt freshmen DeShone Kizer and VanGorder included, were made available to the media after the game.

Among the statistical anomalies Saturday were offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley catching a 14-yard pass from Golson and sophomore-to-be defensive lineman Peter Mokwuah managing to pick up a roughing-the-passer penalty when contact was allowed, but certainly excessive contact was a no-no.

The defense, meanwhile, showed pressures and movement but no exotic wrinkles and none of the substitution packages that figure to be a part of things in August and beyond.

The most amusing part of the trick play-gone-wrong was offensive line coach Harry Hiestand yelling at the offensive line as if they had something to do with the outcome. Ironically, beyond Prosise, they made the strongest statement about their potential both on Saturday and throughout the spring.

“They're going to be able to control the line of scrimmage in most instances,” Kelly said, “and we'll continue to go to our strength, which we believe is up front. “

The most physical practices of Kelly six springs, enabled by offensive and defensive line depth and the head coach’s open mind, leave him with much less guesswork to solve in the summer offseason training sessions and August training camp.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t decisions to be made. But like the one involving Prosise, more of them this offseason are about picking among attractive options rather than settling for the least-toxic alternative.

“We want to have an identity when we come into camp,” Kelly said. “We've got to play Texas, Virginia and Georgia Tech right out of the gate. We have to have an identity of who we are.

“We can't wait four or five weeks to find out — ‘Oh, well, we're a running team. We're a passing team. We're this, we're that.’ We want to use those (June) OTAs to really start to establish our DNA and our identity as to who we are.”

ehansen@sbtinfo.com

(574) 235-6112

@EHansenNDI

Notre Dame's C.J. Prosise (20) runs over safety Max Redfield (10) during Notre Dame's Blue-Gold spring football game on Saturday at the LaBar Practice Complex. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)