C.J. Prosise finds success at ND, to delight of former coach

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

When he was six years old, Clint Alexander’s mother decreed that her son support the following college football teams:

• Michigan, because of Bo Schembechler

• Ohio State, because of Woody Hayes

• Penn State, because of Joe Paterno

• Alabama, because of Bear Bryant

• and Notre Dame, because it’s Notre Dame

“My mom was the big football fan in the family,” Alexander said with a hearty laugh this week. “I was taught to root for coaches. I thought Notre Dame was a person … for about two years.”

These allegiances, of course, yielded complicated emotional swells. When Ohio State annually clashed with Michigan, for example, the only certain result was a puddle of conflicted tears.

“If Michigan won, I’d be happy, but I’d cry because Woody lost,” Alexander recalled. “If Ohio State won, I’d cry because Bo lost.”

A football coach in the making, Alexander felt attached to Hayes, who bore a striking physical resemblance to his grandfather. He stared in awe at Bryant, college football’s John Wayne in a houndstooth hat, who was “just bigger than life.”

And he always loved Notre Dame, though not for any specific player or coach.

At least, not until C.J. Prosise came around.

***

There was a time, believe it or not, when Brian Kelly and his staff weren’t convinced Prosise was athletic enough to receive a scholarship offer from Notre Dame.

Alexander, Prosise’s head football coach at the Woodberry Forest School in Woodberry Forest, Va., knew the truth. He had been virtually flooded with examples, with catches and spin moves and 100-meter dashes and acrobatic dunks, with brilliant flashes of hard-to-believe athleticism.

“He would do stuff that other kids just couldn’t do,” Alexander said with a chuckle. “His senior year, he made that Lynn Swann falling catch that you see from the Super Bowl. He did that. He once returned a punt down the sideline, and this team did everything right to pin him into the sideline. He stayed within seven yards of the sideline, making guys miss and working the blocks, and that was probably a 60-yard return where the other team did everything about as well as you could.

“He had some special catches, some special interceptions. I watched him go up over a kid on the sideline for a ball that he had no business getting his hands on, and he went up and got it. It seemed like he came from the middle of the field.”

But it wasn’t enough for Alexander to say it. Notre Dame’s coaches had heard it all before, and if they extended offers to every kid toting a coach’s recommendation, they could fill 100 rosters with countless supposed studs.

Prosise had to prove it.

And so, they sent the tape.

“In our school’s little dunk contest, C.J. did the one where (Michael) Jordan dunks from the free throw line. Well, he was almost on top of that free throw line when he did it.

“Once we sent that (tape), I think they were like, ‘Oh … OK.’”

Four years and two position switches later, Prosise’s dunk still shakes the rims in Kelly’s mind.

“I saw him dunking a basketball at his high school, and I saw this athlete, and I said, ‘I don't know where he's going to play, but we've got to take him,’ Kelly recalled. “He's just that good of an athlete. I loved his personality. Again, his makeup, great fit from a great school. We've just got to find a place for him to play.”

***

C.J. Prosise has found a place to play.

Through three games, that much is clear. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound athlete, who shifted from wide receiver to running back last spring after arriving in South Bend as a defensive back, has rushed for 451 yards and four touchdowns, averaging a gaudy 7.6 yards per rush. He’s on pace to eclipse 1,800 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns by season’s end.

The burst comes as an affirmation, rather than a surprise.

“I knew what I could do coming into the season, and I think the coaches definitely knew what I could do,” Prosise said. “They probably didn’t think I’d be getting so many touches this early, but they definitely had the confidence in me, and they’re showing it now.”

He’s certainly no backup, a point that has been driven in with extreme force since Prosise relieved injured starter Tarean Folston in the first quarter of the season opener against Texas on Sept. 5.

“I’m definitely getting a lot more carries than I was expecting to get, but that’s what we do here,” he said last week. “It’s ‘next man in.’ When somebody goes down, I have to step up in the ways they need me to.”

Prosise has been well suited to do that, and not just because of his noted athleticism. He’s also relentlessly driven, an attribute Alexander glimpsed on the back of cramped buses and the corner of end zones alike.

“He had to work, and he did,” Alexander said. “He finished a game and you looked in the back of the bus and he’s studying. You get off the bus and it’s 11:40 at night, and he’s studying. He put his time in and he’s earned everything he’s gotten.”

The results were evident in Woodberry Forest, where Prosise earned first-team Virginia all-state honors in 2010 and 2011. And now, they’re just as evident at Notre Dame, where his 91-yard touchdown run — the longest in the storied history of Notre Dame Stadium — put away road favorite Georgia Tech last weekend.

At running back, Prosise has found a new home.

They’re taking notice in his old one.

“Well I’ll tell you, there’s a ton of Notre Dame gear on this campus now,” Alexander said. “You go into rooms and there’s a Notre Dame football poster, and you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that before.’

“We’ve got a lot of kids from the south, but boy, there’s a lot of Notre Dame fans now.”

***

In Prosise’s case, a picture says more than it shows.

Back in 2012, Alexander and his wife took the Notre Dame freshman out to dinner at Red Lobster during one of his breaks from school. Sometime between the cheddar bay biscuits and the bill, Prosise posed for a photo with Alexander’s two sons — both ardent Notre Dame fans.

“The picture of him and my two boys was his Facebook profile picture for two years,” Alexander said. “Not him in his uniform, scoring a touchdown. Not him saying, ‘Look at me, I’m doing all these things.’

“It was him and two little kids that looked up to him. That says a lot about who he is.”

***

C.J. Prosise has arrived.

Maybe not as quickly as he once hoped, or at the same position.

But that has never been the most important thing to Notre Dame’s selfless standout.

“You know, I knew we had a really good athlete there,” Kelly said this week. “Did I know he was going to be the starting running back? No, I didn't. But I knew he was going to help our football team somewhere.

“It's great to see him having the success that he's having. I'm glad our defensive coaches didn't think he could backpedal really well, which kind of looks silly right now, doesn't it? So much for our evaluation process.

“He's an outstanding athlete, and he'll do anything for the team. That's why it's great to see the success that he's having.”

On Sept. 12, Alexander saw that success in person. When Prosise rushed for 155 yards and two touchdowns in Notre Dame’s thrilling 34-27 road victory over Virginia, his former coach was there — still supporting Notre Dame, because it’s Notre Dame.

But more specifically, supporting his sons’ favorite player.

“I’m just so happy for him, and we’ve got two other boys on the team as well — Doug Randolph and Greer Martini,” Alexander said. “To see them out there, I just can’t believe it. I remember telling my wife, ‘Wow, we never thought in our wildest dreams we would get a kid to a program like that.’ We had four kids involved in the Virginia program and three in the Notre Dame program.

“From a coach’s perspective, you’re like the proudest papa in the world.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s C.J. Prosise (20) breaks away on a long touchdown run during the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN