Notre Dame finds a 'quiet assassin' in ascending RB Deon McIntosh

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Bob Wischusen made a mistake.

An honest one, but a telling one.

With 6:48 remaining in the third quarter last Saturday, No. 16 Notre Dame (5-1) held a 19-7 lead over a physically fragile former ACC contender, North Carolina. Rain clouds threatened overhead, and the Irish threatened to finally, decisively pull away.

“I know that we want to learn a little bit more about Ian Book and everything else, but this is a two-score game and you’ve got a chance to finish it strong,” ESPN color commentator Brock Huard implored. “Run the football.”

Before Huard finished his thought, the Irish granted his wish. Book took a shotgun snap and delivered the ball to his running back, who scampered through a gaping hole on the left side of the Irish line, wiggled past a diving safety and cruised untouched into the end zone.

“Right up the gut, they do just that with Adams,” said Wischusen, ESPN’s play-by-play commentator. “He breaks free!”

Someone sure did break free, but it wasn’t Adams. Adams — a 6-foot-2, 225-pound junior, who delivered a 73-yard touchdown run in the first half — wasn’t the one sprinting through the back of the end zone and stopping just short of the cheerleaders. Adams — who leads ND with 791 rushing yards and 129.3 yards per game this season — wasn’t the one dancing, swiveling his arms and hips from side to side as wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown arrived for a hug.

Adams — the only junior captain on the roster, who dealt with dehydration on Saturday — wasn’t the guy who added another 24-yard score in garbage time, then cradled the game ball in the locker room as he sang the alma mater.

It wasn’t Adams. It wasn’t junior Dexter Williams or sophomore Tony Jones Jr.

It was Deon McIntosh.

Deon McIntosh? Who’s Deon McIntosh?

“He’s a quiet assassin,” said Matt DuBuc, the head coach at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

On Signing Day in 2016, McIntosh — a 5-foot-11, 193-pound sophomore — was an unheralded three-star running back, owner of the third-lowest ranking via Rivals in an Irish class that stretched 23-deep.

On the first day of spring practice in 2017, he was Notre Dame’s 12th wide receiver.

On the first day of the 2017 season, he was the team’s fourth running back.

But on Saturday, he was so much more.

In his last three games, in fact, McIntosh has scored his first four career touchdowns. Over that span, he — not Adams — has the most carries on the team. On Saturday, as fellow running backs Adams, Williams and Jones continued to nurse gimpy ankles, McIntosh rushed 12 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-10 win.

As rain showers doused the natural grass inside Kenan Stadium, the 193-pound sophomore effectively finished the Tar Heels.

Wischusen may have been mistaken, but DuBuc wasn’t surprised.

“He’s just a natural tailback with great vision and good explosiveness,” he said. “When he sees the hole, he goes.”

There were plenty of holes to go through during McIntosh’s sophomore season at Cardinal Gibbons in 2013. As the starting tailback in an air raid offense, the younger brother of current Miami defensive lineman R.J. McIntosh made a name for himself in a multitude of ways.

He rushed for 1,107 yards, 8.8 yards per carry and nine touchdowns and added 21 catches for 192 yards and two more scores.

“He was able to catch the ball and we were throwing him a ton of passes: swing passes, shoot routes, vertical throws. He became a very versatile player,” said DuBuc, who served as McIntosh’s offensive coordinator before being promoted to head coach in 2016.

“He’s really tough after contact, as you can see. You’re not going to bring him down with one tackler, usually. He’s a grinding running back when he needs to, and he’s a finesse guy when he needs to.”

In his senior season, McIntosh needed to grind. With a depleted set of offensive linemen and skill players, the holes virtually disintegrated. He mustered 681 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

“People were saying, ‘Oh, he’s not having these explosive plays,’ but it wasn’t because of anything he was doing,” DuBuc said. “They were loading up the box against us, and he was still grinding out yards.”

Of course, McIntosh’s senior stat line wasn’t overly impressive.

But the situation, and what it said about his character, still made an impression on Notre Dame.

“His senior year, he loses his quarterback and two of their top linemen to a rival high school,” Notre Dame running backs coach Autry Denson said on National Signing Day in 2016. “But to show you who he is and how his dad has raised him, they’re so loyal that his dad didn’t care. He was not leaving. He had plenty of people trying to pull at him to get him to go. That’s why he had to shoulder the load.

“The way he was able to mature from a leadership standpoint as well as continue to develop his game because he had to do so many other jobs, we will see the benefits of that when he gets here."

This season, McIntosh finally arrived — not that he’ll ever tell you so. In a signing day questionnaire, when asked what he won’t miss about the recruiting process, the running back simply responded: “All the phone calls.”

“He just didn’t do a lot of the camps,” DuBuc said. “He wasn’t a Rivals guy. He didn’t go to all these things. He just did it on the field. He ran track. He wasn’t a self-promoter. Typically, that’s what happens with all these four-star or five-star guys.

“He’s pretty reserved. Notre Dame, West Virginia, Miami … all these high-end schools and top-flight academic schools wanted him. We advised him that we thought Notre Dame was a great fit academically, but the kids make the final decision.

“But any time a guy gets offered by Notre Dame, you have to listen.”

McIntosh doesn’t speak loudly, but when he runs, you have to listen.

Sooner or later, the world will learn his name.

“It seems like at Notre Dame, for some reason early on, he was not the talk of the town,” DuBuc said. “But we knew over here what a talent he was. Given the opportunity, he will make the most of it — and he has.”

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mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame's Deon McIntosh (38) moves by North Carolina's Myles Wolfolk (11) on a touchdown run during the Notre Dame-North Carolina NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, NC. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame’s Deon McIntosh (38) runs in a touchdown in front of North Carolina’s Myles Dorn (1) during the Notre Dame-North Carolina NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, NC. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN