Notre Dame RB Tarean Folston takes ownership of position

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Ownership is a concept that can’t be understated, when it comes to confidence and accountability.

It also can go a long way toward making a guy into a productive football player.

Take Tarean Folston, for example.

Last year, the 5-foot-10, 214-pound junior running back seemed to wrestle with the thought of taking ownership of the position at Notre Dame. At least that’s what Irish head coach Brian Kelly kept telling the media.

As a sophomore with classmate Greg Bryant and senior Cam McDaniel alongside him — not necessarily behind him — Folston was slow out of the gate. Through the first five games of 2014, all victories, Folston ran the ball 42 times for 165 yards and nary a touchdown.

Kelly kept waiting to see that “oomph” that came with being “The Man.”

Then something clicked. Whether it was a conscious attitude adjustment, in which Folston took command of the position, or just a matter of getting comfortable with the situation, Kelly got his owner.

Like everyone else on the Irish offensive depth chart, Folston struggled in losses to Arizona State (11 carries, 30 yards) and Southern Cal (4 carries, 14 yards). But in the other six games, including the Music City Bowl against LSU (21 carries, 73 yards, 1 TD), Folston finished with 175 carries, 889 yards and six touchdowns.

Those are impressive enough to be considered as ownership numbers.

“I just kept playing hard,” Folston said of last year’s circumstances. He downplayed the notion that he didn’t own the position.

“I just continued to play hard and everything fell into place,” he said. “I don’t know what it was. I just started rushing for more yards and getting more and more carries. It happened.”

Folston’s not the sort of guy who tends to overthink a predicament. He was happy with the way last season ended, and is counting on not missing a beat as Notre Dame begins a new season Saturday against Texas.

When Bryant left the Irish because of an academic situation and newly-minted running back C.J. Prosise, who was a receiver the last two years and a scout team safety as a freshman, was banged up with a hip problem for a couple weeks, Folston was getting the heavy bulk of the snaps in preseason camp.

He wasn’t just the owner of the position, he was practically the only tenant.

“It was good to take a lot of reps,” Folston said. “C.J.’s healthy now. I’m glad to have him back.”

“I'm cautiously optimistic that we are going to see a little bit more than maybe we saw at times last year,” Kelly said of what he expected from Folston. “Don't get me wrong, we were pleased with a lot of the things that he did last year for us.

“I'm a big fan of Tarean Folston. I have higher … maybe I have a higher expectation of him at times than he does of himself. That's where we continue to communicate on a day-to-day basis. There's so much more out there for him. I've seen that kind of manifest itself in practice.

“He's had a really good couple of weeks in practice. I hope to see that come out on Saturday, because he's a terrific back. There's much more for him to achieve.”

When informed of Kelly’s statement, Folston bristled a bit about the “cautiously optimistic” part.

“I really don’t know why he said that,” Folston said. “I’m ready to go, that’s what I am.”

Folston is the only proven commodity Notre Dame will have in its backfield. Quarterback Malik Zaire is hardly an established body of work, having started just one game. Then Folston’s backup Prosise — or the stable of converted receiver Justin Brent, or walk-on-turned-scholarship contender Josh Anderson, or freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams — all come in without having played a single snap at running back for the Irish.

A scary proposition, no matter the potential in the group.

There’s something that can be said for the value of experience when the bright lights come on and the game’s in the balance.

Sooner or later, Folston will have to take a breather.

The situation Folston faces now is quite different from the one in which he was immersed last season.

For starters, Zaire is more of a threat to tuck the ball under his arm and run than was Everett Golson. The Irish offensive line was forced to shuffle personnel because of center Nick Martin’s hand injury, and the chemistry struggled to come together. Receiver Will Fuller was just beginning to emerge as a force.

And, through all those limitations, Folston was just learning to be what he calls a “complete back.”

“I learned from our receivers how to run a route; how to step on the defender’s toes; shake him off at the top; staying low; picking up blitzes; pad level on blitzes,” Folston said. “Pass (protection) is definitely the hardest. I’m not as big as a linebacker coming in. But I’m pretty stout. When I picked up the technique, and started doing a little bit right, it came a lot easier.

“You have to protect yourself, even when you have the ball — run with great pad level, keep moving.”

While Folston has evolved into a full-service component of the Irish offense, the players around him have improved significantly.

The threat of having Zaire run forces the Texas defense, which ranked 59th against the run last season (164.3 yards allowed), to account for an added dimension in the Irish attack.

Notre Dame’s offensive line should be much more equipped to open some holes than last year (when the Irish averaged 159.5 rushing yards per game), and the receivers — guys like Fuller, Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter — come in with plenty of respect from the opposition.

In other words, all indications are that, thanks to an enhanced arsenal of weapons, Folston could have a big-time season, while making a significant contribution to the offensive success.

“Whenever I’m playing the sport that I love, and that’s football, I always feel like I’ve got something to prove,” Folston said.

So Tarean, what’s there to prove against the Longhorns?

“You’re gonna see,” he said. “You’re gonna see.”

This owner is poised to put on a show.

Notre Dame running back Tarean Folston (25) celebrates his touchdown during the second half of ND's 49-39 win over Navy, Saturday at Landover, Md. (AP Photo/ALEX BRANDON)