C.J. Prosise looks to turn growing pains into gains against Navy

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — If C.J. Prosise was going to work himself into anything close to an impassioned lather this week, it would be about defending the rep of his offensive line.

The Notre Dame senior running back’s own takeaway from his first statistical step backward, in a 24-22 loss to now sixth-ranked Clemson last Saturday night, was more cerebral and anecdotal then emotional.

“There comes a point where you’ve got to put your head down and just get whatever you can,” Prosise said Wednesday after practice, as the 15th-ranked Irish (4-1) prep for Navy (4-0). “When a team loads the box, you’re just going to have to run somebody over or make somebody miss to create something.”

And Prosise, now five games into his career as a running back, spent most of his night running into a Clemson defense that brought a safety up near the line of scrimmage to give the Tigers a numbers advantage against what was then the nation’s 12th-most prolific running game.

The intermittent monsoon-like conditions in Clemson, S.C., made it a good gamble, considering ND really only had two quarters to throw the football with any reliability. The Irish gleaned 270 of their 321 passing yards in the two periods when they had the wind and the downpour at their back.

Coming in as the nation’s fifth-leading rusher, Prosise finished with 50 yards on 15 carries, after starting the night with minus-four yards total over his first nine backfield touches. ESPN reported the 6-foot-1, 220-pound converted wide receiver was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 44 percent of his carries on the night.

ND may not play in such conditions again this season, but its running game will be tested by scheme and substance. Of the remaining seven opponents on the Irish schedule, only USC on Oct. 17 (70th in rush defense) doesn’t have a better run defense that all four of the teams ND has already beaten and the Irish (59th) as well.

Boston College, at 43.3 rushing yards a game and 1.48 per carry, leads the nation. Pitt is fourth. Clemson, which held the Irish to a season-low 116 rushing yards is 25th. Even Navy (55th) is much improved, up 39 spots from the end of last season.

“To me it’s about coming out and fixing what we did wrong last week and not doing it again,” Prosise said.

ND head football coach Brian Kelly put some of the “fixing” on the coaching staff.

“As for tackles behind the line of scrimmage, some of them were certainly Clemson getting a great push up front,” he said. “Some of them we could have done a better job relative to play-calling and when we called certain plays.

“We put in some schemes that we needed to do a better job just coordinating at the time we put them in.”

One wrinkle that did work — turning Prosise back into a quasi-receiver. He finished with 100 yards receiving on four catches, and his 56-yard TD catch and run was the longest offensive play for either team.

“He's one of those players that's going to do exactly what you ask him to do,” Kelly said. “If you ask him to be a pass catcher out of the backfield, he's certainly going to do that, and he feels comfortable doing it.”

Prosise still ranks among the nation’s leaders in rushing yards per game (12th, 130.0), rushing yards per carry (10th, 7.3 and not too far off George Gipp’s 95-year-old school record of 8.1) and all-purpose yards (13th, 156.2).

And pro scouts are beginning to take note. So are the NFL draft analysts with their early mocks and big boards.

Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller on Wednesday listed six Irish players in his top 100, four of whom have college eligibility remaining beyond 2015. That includes Prosise.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was deemed the No. 2 pro prospect in the nation at the moment, with offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley fourth, wide receiver Will Fuller 42nd, defensive lineman Sheldon Day 52nd, center Nick Martin 83rd and Prosise at No. 63.

“I just try to stay level-headed and stay within Notre Dame, stay with our system here,” Prosise said when asked if he’ll perhaps have a tough decision to make eventually whether to return for a fifth year. “I don’t think about any of that stuff until the season’s over.

“It might be a decision I have to make, but right now I’m just playing every game.”

And the next one is the most complete Navy team to come to South Bend in decades per some observers close to the program. This Notre Dame team, meanwhile, is still on a trajectory that would make it the Irish team with the best national standing in rush offense since Lou Holtz’s last season as head coach, in 1996.

“I definitely think we’re going to come out this week and do what we’ve been doing every other week,” Prosise said. “And if we play our game and we do what we’re capable of, we’re going to win every game.”

Sad turn for Shepard

After a series of wild and mostly cruel twists, it appears the college football career of former Notre Dame cornerback recruit is over.

On Wednesday, Tee Shepard left the Ole Miss program with the intention of simply being a regular student and picking up his degree in May.

“The injuries and challenges I have overcome the last few years have taken away my love for playing the game of football,” Shepard said in a prepared statement.

“I will always love this team and cheer them on as they compete for a championship. I want to especially thank (Rebels head) coach (Hugh) Freeze for showing me what unconditional love is like.”

Shepard was one of the nation’s top cornerback prospects coming out of Washington Union High School in Fresno, Calif. He enrolled early at ND, in January of 2012, and was a strong possibility to start at cornerback for the Irish in that coming season.

But he got snagged by a test score issue in March of that year, just before spring practice was to start and left Notre Dame.

Kelly eventually flipped another recruit in that class, running back KeiVarae Russell, to cornerback that August. Russell ended up starting every game of the season that culminated with a loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game.

Shepard, meanwhile, played a season in junior college before eventually landing at Ole Miss. He missed all of last season with a foot injury suffered just before the start of the season. Shepard was playing a backup role this season and had been battling a knee injury, per Daniel Pauling of the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.

Just two days before Shepard’s announcement, Freeze said the player’s lifelong hearing impairment negatively impacted him and the Rebels during last Saturday’s 38-10 loss at Florida.

“He’s really struggled in getting the checks,” Freeze said. “In that kind of environment, they used a lot of shifts and a lot of motion.

“A lot of teams have been doing that to us. When they do that, we have to make a check, and that is very difficult for him. With the games that we are playing, it’s much easier to play at home than on the road. That is an issue for him.”

Notre Dame running back C.J. Prosise (20), here headed for the end zone on a pass play at Clemson last Saturday, looks to help the Irish running game get back up to speed this Saturday against unbeaten Navy. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)