Analysis: How Notre Dame can stay in the running without Folston

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The temporary confusion Sunday over whether Tarean Folston’s season-ending injury was a torn MCL or ACL doesn’t cloud the formidability of the job 11th-ranked Notre Dame has ahead of it in order to move on without him.

Or how irrelevant self-exiled transfer Greg Bryant is in that equation.

Folston suffered a right knee injury three carries into his junior season Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium, in a 38-3 verdict over Texas so lopsided statistically it mitigated so many of the big-picture storylines, such as the game being a clash between No. 2 and 3, respectively, on the all-time FBS win list.

Backup safety Avery Sebastian also suffered a long-term injury in the game. The grad transfer from Cal suffered a broken bone in his foot, will have surgery Monday and is expected to be sidelined four to six weeks.

As far as Folston, what Irish coach Brian Kelly first announced Sunday as a torn medial collateral ligament (MCL) turned out to be a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). ND’s leading rusher from 2014 is set for surgery in the next seven to 10 days but can recoup the year of eligibility by applying for a medical redshirt year.

The two people whose roles change the most dramatically in Folston’s absence are senior C.J. Prosise and freshman Dexter Williams, beginning with Saturday’s road trip to Virginia (0-1).

Williams likely would have redshirted had Folston, Prosise and fellow freshman Josh Adams stayed healthy the entire season.

Instead Kelly plugged the first-year player from Orlando, Fla., into the offense late in the second half Saturday night, likely knowing how the results of Folston’s Sunday morning MRI were going to go.

On Thursday night, before the Texas game, Kelly called Williams and converted sophomore receiver Justin Brent “developmental.” Saturday Williams moved that development into a game situation, rushing seven times for 24 yards.

Casual observers may wonder how there can be such a steep learning curve while making the leap from high school running back, which Brent was a lot of the time as a senior and Williams was full-time — and did it well enough to be rated a four-star prospect and the nation’s 12th-best running back recruit in the 2015 cycle.

“Other than just getting to know the playbook, and certainly just right and left in terms of the vernacular and the offense,” Kelly said, “(It’s) pass protection. Catching the ball coming out of the backfield. Getting lined up.

“If we just assume that you can get all that done, it's the patience of letting your blockers get into their spots and having the patience to trust your offensive line, which is sometimes hard to do as a young back.”

Which brings us to Bryant, a five-star prospect from Delray Beach, Fla., who hopes to take the field soon for ASA Miami, a first-year junior college football program located next to a shopping mall.

Eligibility issues have delayed his debut, which could come as soon as Saturday, when the Silver Storm host the University of God’s Chosen, incorrectly listed as the “University of God’s Children” on ASA’s online schedule.

Bryant absolutely has the talent to make a difference in ND’s diluted backfield, but he reneged on his commitment to the maturity process that would make that talent as relevant as it needed to be.

His choice of junior colleges, with questionable competition that includes some post-graduate prep schools, more than hints at that. So does his choice to enroll there apparently behind his family’s back after he was declared academically ineligible in August.

Initially committed to an academic lifestyle and climate that would test him, Bryant eventually soured on the process and took the path of least resistance. His suspension, then ineligible status mirrored his football shortcomings, specifically the ignoring of the required nuances to play running back at the college level.

Bryant totaled 289 yards in 54 carries as a reserve last season, for an impressive 5.4 yards per carry. But the Irish coaching staff didn’t trust him in big games.

He carried the ball once against Florida State, twice against LSU and only a total of 11 times over ND’s final seven games of the 2014 season.

Maybe Kelly feared where that all might be headed back in March, when he and the Irish offensive coaches decided to experiment with slot receiver Prosise at running back in the spring.

If successful, the original plan was for him to move the senior back and forth between the slot and the offensive backfield. Prosise never played running back in high school or in youth football growing up, his only carries coming on occasional jet sweeps or reverses.

But he picked the position up so well in the spring that he started to gravitate toward being a full-time running back. And when Bryant’s troubles started to percolate in June, it cemented the move.

Prosise’s power dimension, with many yards after contact on Saturday night, is the unexpected strength of his game. But durability over a long season will now also have to be a surprise asset, too.

Kelly said Sunday there are no plans to move former running back Amir Carlisle back to his old position from slot receiver, a notion he could revisit later in the season if necessary.

Instead Adams, with an impressive two-TD debut, and Williams will rotate in with Prosise. Former walk-on Josh Anderson gets plucked from the scout team to train with the varsity.

“We like the guys we've got,” Kelly said in a question that included Bryant’s depature. “But that’s football. We're certainly disappointed for Tarean. He's worked so hard to get where he is. But there's nothing you can do about it.

“That's why you try to develop the depth in your program.”

Even with Folston contributing only three carries and leaving midway through the first quarter, Kelly and the rest of the offensive play-calling triumvirate — assistant head coach Mike Denbrock and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford — didn’t abandon the run.

In fact anything but. ND’s 52 carries (for 214 yards) Saturday night against Texas is the most by a Kelly-coached team since 2003, when Grand Valley State amassed 61 carries against Texas A&M-Kingsville in a 31-3 Division II semifinal playoff victory in what was Kelly’s second-to-last game at the school.

A final postscript on the Folston injury, before and early in ND’s last run to a national title shot, in 2012, the Irish lost seven players all projected in the two-deeps for the entire season or at least large chunks of it. And survived.

Some other takeaways from the Texas toasting:

• Texas had as many three-and-outs (8) as first downs against the Irish. And that matches the fewest first downs given up by a Notre Dame team in the Kelly Era logged in a 27-3 mashing of Army in 2010.

On a weekend with a plethora of FCS-FBS matchups, you could say the Irish defense FCS-ed Texas. The Longhorns, who were admittedly offensively challenged in 2014, amassed the fewest total yards of any FBS team in the country during the opening weekend, with 163.

From the Notre Dame perspective, that’s the fewest yards given up by an Irish defense since 2008. Yes, that was a Charlie Weis team, and it came Oct. 25th of that year in a 33-7 victory.

The opposing coach, whose team garnered a mere 124 total yards in that game? Former Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham, whose Huskies finished 0-12 that season in what turned out to be his final year in coaching.

Over ND’s final six games last season, the lowest yardage total the injury-depleted defense gave up was 407. But it wasn’t just injuries that ND had trouble dealing with. It was uptempo offenses. And the Longhorns are trying on the uptempo fit this season, unleashing it Saturday night against the Irish.

“Never felt like we were out of position and never really had that sense from last year that we didn't get great communication out there,” Kelly said.

Texas had the ball only 20 minutes and 50 seconds out of a possible 60 and ran just 52 offensive plays (to ND’s 75), so that didn’t lend itself to big tackle numbers on the Irish side of the ledger.

But the segment of the defense that had the most to prove — the defensive line — made a big impression on Kelly.

• Junior Malik Zaire finds himself all over the top of the national stats this week, ranking third in passing efficiency, third in completion percentage, 17th in passing yards per game and 22nd in total offense.

And he did it against a defense that was ranked 15th nationally against the pass and 25th in total defense last season.

Kelly, quite frankly, thinks Zaire can do better.

“From the quarterback position, we have to clean up a couple things relative to recognition of protections,” he said.

Not that the coach was complaining. Zaire played well enough that backup DeShone Kizer was able to make his college debut with 10:55 left in the game and play the balance of the fourth quarter.

The redshirt freshman mostly handed off, but he did attempt one pass (an incompletion) and ran the ball twice for 10 yards.

“Great learning experience for him and great film to work off, for him to build off,” Kelly said. “Invaluable to get that opportunity.”

Overall the Irish piled up 527 yards, ninth-most in the Kelly Era. Wake Forest in 2012, with 588, is the high-water mark during Kelly’s six seasons.

It was a great night actually, for ND quarterbacks past and present. Zaire, Florida State QB Everett Golson and Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel combined to go 56-of-69 passing for 848 yards and nine touchdowns with a combined zero interceptions.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame's C.J. Prosise (20) pounds into the Texas defense during ND's 38-3 rout of Texas, Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHEN: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (EDT)

WHERE: Scott Stadium; Charlottesville, Va.

TV: ABC

RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN -FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 9