Lesar: Notre Dame coach Autry Denson as genuine as they come

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Fumbles are more mental than physical.

At least that’s the way Autry Denson was brought up.

The Notre Dame football team’s second-year running backs coach – and, oh, by the way, its all-time leading rusher – is thoroughly convinced that ball security is a frame of mind.

“My dad told me this one time, and it stuck,” Denson said. “He said, ‘Fumbling is a lack of courage. Don’t do it again.’”

Denson took that advice to heart. In his four years with the Irish (1995-98), he carried the ball 854 times – rushing for 4,318 yards and 43 touchdowns – and fumbled just twice.

“It seemed to work for me,” Denson said. “I just do what I was taught.”

That attitude has reflected in his charges. Last season, running backs C.J. Prosise, Josh Adams, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams combined for 297 carries and lost three fumbles. This preseason, Folston, Adams, Williams and the rest have been pretty clean in practice.

Gotta hit

Actually, it’s the physical part that solidifies the mindset.

“We have been blessed,” said Denson, a guy who is quick to acknowledge his fortune. “Guys are doing what they’re being coached to do. We have to be very smart about the amount of contact we give our guys. We have to be hit. You can’t get that first hit in a game. We have to get to a point where we’re calloused to a hit.

“I beat my guys up all day in (individual drills). I understand the importance of taking shots. Guys are ripping at the ball all day.

“I believe in keeping things simple. When you were little and you wanted to get to Notre Dame, you walked around with a football. You know what you should do when you get to Notre Dame? Walk around with a football.

“You’re going to get more comfortable with it. Whether you’re walking down the hall or going to the dining hall, somebody’s going to try to take it away from you.

“I always had a football. That’s just the way I grew up. I had a ball in my car.”

Watch practice long enough and it’s easy to notice some unorthodox methods. Backs hit the holes in drills with a ball tucked under each arm. There’s always pulling and yanking going on.

Ball security is of the utmost priority. So is the welfare of his players.

Lotta love

There’s an intangible that helps Denson get the message across to his stable of thoroughbreds. It goes beyond the confines of the normal coach-player relationship.

“(The players) trust me because they know I love them,” said Denson, who credits his former Irish coaches – Urban Meyer, Desmond Robinson and Lou Holtz – with stoking the coaching fire. “I don’t kinda love 'em; I really love 'em. When they trust you, it’s like your parents, they want to please you. They don’t want to let their parents down.”

No room for an imposter. Denson’s as genuine as they come.

“That’s not anything about me as a coach, it’s me as a man of God. It’s my faith,” said Denson, who got his business administration degree from Notre Dame in '99. “I’m not coaching for me. If it wasn’t me being called to this ministry, I wouldn’t be coaching. I would be doing quite well in the financial industry.

“One reason why I love working with these youths is, they can’t sugarcoat anything. They’re not polished like adults. If they don’t like something, if they smell something is rotten, they’re going to tell you it’s rotten.

“It is what it is, but there’s a level of accountability there on both sides.”

Year 2

The 39-year-old Denson, still a relative newcomer to the coaching business, has made substantial progress heading into his second season at his alma mater.

From humble beginnings as a high school head coach in his native south Florida in 2010, to brief stops at Bethune-Cookman (three years) and Miami of Ohio (one), Denson has found a comfort level in South Bend.

Besides coaxing success at the running back position, he’s also evolved into a star recruiter in the talent-rich state of Florida.

“I’m just answering to God,” Denson said. “I’ve been called to an assignment. It’s not about me. It’s about (the players).

“Last year, I was going through the same thing our freshmen were going through. I was back here at Notre Dame, but I didn’t know what to expect as a coach.”

Denson tried to equate the situation to a running back’s development. He used his hands to demonstrate a tunnel vision perspective of the situation last year. Now, having achieved a comfort level, hands went wide and he sees the whole field now.

“Now, if (associate head coach Mike) Denbrock tells me something, I know exactly what he means,” Denson said. “Before, I may have called it one thing, and he may have called it something else. Now, we all speak the same language.”

“The way he interacts with the players at his position; the positive energy that he injects into the group; the mentorship, the father-figure that he is to those guys in the running back (meeting) room is as good as I’ve ever been around,” said Denbrock. “(Convincing Irish coaches of his successful traits) took about five minutes.

“(In the interview process) we started talking about, ‘How would you deal with this situation? What’s your teaching method for this?’

“He’s just so genuine. He’s so invested into the success of the people he’s in charge of. (Hiring him) was a no-brainer.”

“The only way I could screw this up is if I stop trusting God,” Denson said. “He brought me here. He gave me this assignment. If I try to do it myself, we’ve got some problems.”

No tolerance for a fumble — on the field or in life.

Autry Denson, running backs coach, during Notre Dame football media day on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015, at Notre Dame in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)