Notre Dame RB C.J. Prosise rising above the bruises

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — How many are too many?

Through seven football games, Notre Dame running back C.J. Prosise has carried the ball 129 times for 922 yards and 11 touchdowns.

That’s a lot of hits. That’s some big-time punishment for a 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior who has an ongoing problem with pad level, and revels in the physical nature of a scrum involving a bunch of big bodies pushing, shoving, and everything else.

That’s 18-plus carries a game, and just about each one ends with a pretty good pop.

Prosise needs an insurance policy.

At one time not that long ago, he was the safety valve. There was Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. Prosise was the “what if…” guy.

“What if…” is now “Hey, you…”

And there’s no safety net below him.

There are probably three players the Irish can’t afford to lose heading into Saturday night’s game at Temple — Prosise, quarterback DeShone Kizer (since Brandon Wimbush may not be ready to win a championship just yet) and linebacker Jaylon Smith (because he’s the best in the country).

Irish coach Brian Kelly has recognized Prosise’s value to the team. In fact, the veteran of more than two decades as a head coach broke a longstanding personal tenet by putting a running back — Prosise — in a red jersey in practices leading up to the Southern Cal game, which deemed him unhittable by the defense.

A status normally reserved for quarterbacks.

The only way anyone knew that was through keen observations from the Showtime footage.

“That darned Showtime,” said Kelly, with his tongue in his cheek. “I tell you what, they are a pain in my butt. All right, they are off, no more Showtime. We are going to HBO.

“You know what, that's the first time I've done that in 25 years and I'm sorry that that got out. I guess you couldn't help it if you showed any of it. I just don't like teams getting a lot of series — and we were at that point where I didn't want him… — we're (hitting but not tackling) the back in practice.

“We're trying to really do our defense as much justice as possible and helping them in tackling and not being able to tag off situations. We have to get better at tackling and (wrapping up) the back. I didn't want him to get in there and get hurt during practice, so I broke all my rules and I put a red jersey on a back for the first time in 25 years. It's out there.”

“Everybody knew I was hurting,” Prosise said of his teammates. “They tried to stay off me anyway. I knew I had to get that red jersey on.”

While rushing for 143 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries against Southern Cal two weeks ago, Prosise was able to break three runs for double-digit yards – 31, 25 and 10.

What’s been impressive with his effort thus far has been Prosise’s ability to gain big yards after first contact.

“Generally speaking, we keep just a couple of stats and that is yards after contact,” said Kelly, though the exact numbers weren’t available. “So a lot of that would fall on C.J.'s shoulders. And the rest of it, we just put it on the offensive line and work — the receivers’ block.

“The only stat we carry is yards after contact, which is attributed to the running back specifically. Other than that, it's about having a great offensive line and getting guys up the field blocking for you.”

“(Yards after contact) comes from the motivation to want to keep pushing,” Prosise said. “You know your (offensive) line is going to be there for you. They want to get those extra yards too.

“The offensive line has been great for me all year. But, when I get into the open space, I can make people miss. Once everything comes together, that’s how you make big plays. That’s happened multiple times in our games.”

What Prosise needs, more than a red jersey in practice (which he doesn’t wear anymore), is help from a couple freshmen. Josh Adams and Dexter Williams need to get up to speed enough so Kelly and his staff can have enough confidence to turn them loose.

Adams had one carry for 26 yards against Southern Cal, and Williams didn’t play a snap in the backfield.

“I was sore,” Prosise said of his pre-bye week plight. “That’s just football. My body feels great now. That week off really helped.

“I know I can carry the load for this team and still be the workhorse out there.”

Unlike other years in the Kelly regime, that workhorse is having plenty of success without the luxury of an offense with two experienced tight ends helping the blocking scheme and also serving as pass-catching weapons.

“(The tight ends) are a bit inconsistent, and most of it is, we put them in some very pronounced positions on the edge of our offense, and so they have to make big-time plays for us,” Kelly said. “You know, they are not inside cut-off players for us.

“We are trying to get to the perimeter. They have got to capture the perimeter for us. It's a little bit different in our offense. They are high-profile position players for us. And they are getting better each and every week, but there's some inexperience in that group, as you know. You look at Nic Weishar and Tyler (Luatua) and Alizé (Jones) and Chase (Hounshell), those are not experienced players across the board.

“But we are doing pretty good with them. Each and every week, it's a lot of developmental work and (tight ends coach) Scott Booker is doing a good job with them.”

So… What’s the best way to make up for that lack of experience at tight end?

“Oh, a breakaway back, C.J. Prosise,” Kelly said. He's been the difference in that he's turned eight-, 10-yard runs into 50- or 60-yard runs.

“Great knowledge of the offense helped him make the transition (from receiver to running back last spring) quickly. So everything relative to the offense, he didn't have to think about it. All he's had to think about, really, are the mechanics and the steps in terms of the running game. Everything else has been just naturally running with the football.

“He's just a natural runner with the ball in his hands, and he did enough of it in his first couple years where we would have jet sweeps and things that he was just a natural runner of the ball, and he's kind of continued that. The only thing that he's had to think about is really the mechanical pieces of running the football. Other than that, it's been a natural transition.”

Prosise is well beyond the transition stage — and the questions surrounding it. It’s a whole different game for him.

“The game has slowed down for me,” Prosise said. “I’m seeing things differently; reading my blocks better. Overall, the game has slowed down.”

Temple will be quite a challenge for Prosise and the Irish running game. The Owls have an average yield of 92.1 yards and have allowed just three rushing touchdowns.

“They do a lot of gang tackling,” Prosise said of Temple. “They don’t just leave one guy out there to make a tackle. It’s a team defense. We’re going to have to work with that.

“We have to play our game. We can’t let them get us out of our game. They attack the ball; they pursue behind the play. If someone misses a tackle, the others are there for the cleanup.

“I can’t go (into the game) with the mindset, ‘I’m going to break a big one on this play or that play.’ I’ll just get what I can, then once that one play opens up, I’ve gotta hit it.”

It might take some patience, though.

“I stay within myself; I stayed calm,” Prosise said of how he handled the first portion of the season. “I stayed humble, I didn’t let my success get to my head. I just worried about the next week and getting better each day.

“Every week, I just want to be that spark plug for the team. Whatever we need.”

Just try not to get hit hard so often.

A body can only take so much.

Notre Dame’s C.J. Prosise (20) gets tackled by USC's Su'a Cravens (21) Saturday, October 17, 2015, during the USC-Notre Dame football game at Notre Dame Stadium. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)