Analysis: There's no running away from the challenge that confronts Notre Dame's Autry Denson

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Even without the cyber-sniping aimed at Autry Denson’s recruiting rep this summer, the Notre Dame running backs coach finds himself in a peculiar position as the Irish football team opens training camp Friday.

A man of intrigue.

In fact, the man of intrigue — and not necessarily the flattering kind, at the moment — though it could certainly turn out to be that way.

For now, the ND running back corps has the most polluted future among the Irish position groups that will stage the first five practice sessions of the preseason 45 miles south of campus, at the Culver Academies in Culver, Ind.

Yes, even more than an ND safety group that went interception-less last season for the first time in the era of two-platoon football (1964-present), and hamstrung both how aggressive the Irish cornerbacks could play and how daring then-defensive coordinator Mike Elko could get with his pressures up front.

In summing up the snapshot of the six-man running back depth chart as camp opens, it sounds a bit like a sitcom — two freshmen, two hybrids and two question marks. But who gets the last laugh?

Student privacy laws have tongue-tied head coach Brian Kelly so far in at least addressing the apparent four-game suspension that awaits senior Dexter Williams, and that likely will continue Thursday at his noon press conference to kick off the preseason.

Even under ideal conditions though, Williams is at best untested in large sample sizes.

He has never carried the ball more than 39 times in a season and no more than eight times in a game, in part because of injuries, in part because of being slow to develop requisite skills like blitz pickup.

Junior Tony Jones Jr., the other question mark and de facto No. 1 back in Williams’ absence, topped out at nine carries against North Carolina in an injury-filled season in 2017, his first beyond a redshirt freshman campaign.

Sophomore hybrid Jafar Armstrong was a wide receiver last season and may still dabble in that position. Classmate Avery Davis is a quarterback/receiver/running back. Both impressed in their new expanded roles in spring.

Freshmen Jahmir Smith, an early enrollee, and C’Bo Flemister, a summer surprise, are former three-star prospects.

“I think Autry Denson has proven himself as a position coach, as someone who can develop players,” said analyst Steve Wiltfong, 247Sports’ director of recruiting. “What he is as a recruiter, I think, is still too early to define. What if Smith and Flemister turn out to be really good? Then their stars, or lack of them, really didn’t mean anything.”

The twist is history, both in terms of the unlikeliness that Denson would be faced with such a challenge in 2018 and his apparent aptitude for dealing with it.

Running behind the nation’s best offensive line, per the Joe Moore Award selection committee, the 2017 Irish team set school records for quantity (3,503 rushing yards) and quality (6.3 yards per carry).

The 1973 national champs had held the former mark for rushing yards in a season (3,502), while a 1921 squad, which was legendary coach Knute Rockne’s fourth and one in which the yet-to-be dubbed Four Horsemen were freshmen, finally got nudged out of the top spot for rushing average (6.2) after 95 seasons in the books.

Notre Dame’s No. 7 standing nationally at the end of the 2017 season in rushing yards per game (269.5) was its first top 10 finish in that statistical category since coaching icon Lou Holtz’s final season, in 1996. Denson contributed a team-leading 1,179 yards as a sophomore running back that season.

Denson’s brief history as running backs coach at his alma mater is just as impressive when you consider what he faced and conquered in his first season (2015) back at the school where he once became and still is the all-time career rushing leader.

Yes, this 2018 challenge has a familiar ring to it, and it ended well that time.

Three carries into the 2015 opener, the Irish lost their leading rusher from 2014, Tarean Folston. The No. 2 rusher from the 2014 team, former five-star prospect Greg Bryant, had been ruled academically ineligible in August and parachuted into a junior college.

The No. 3 and 4 rushers from that previous season, QB Everett Golson, and running back Cam McDaniel, had transferred and exhausted eligibility, respectively.

That left converted safety and wide receiver C.J. Prosise as the No. 1 option, a player who never played the running back position, going back to youth football, before spring practice of 2015. The No. 2 option was freshman Josh Adams, a former three-star prospect. No. 3 was Williams, a freshman the Irish coaching staff had planned to redshirt until the Folston injury.

Prosise ended up rushing for more than 1,000 yards and evolved into a third-round NFL draft pick. Adams (835 yards) set a freshman rushing record. Collectively, the Irish established a modern-day record for yards per carry (5.6) that got obliterated two seasons later.

It should be pointed out, those players in 2015 ran behind a line comprising future top 10 NFL draft picks Ronnie Stanley, Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, second-rounder Nick Martin, and talented guard Steve Elmer who later walked away from football and into the business world with a year of eligibility on the table.

Even the 2016 team, which had a 4-8 bottom line and ran behind a rebuilding offensive line, put up a respectable 4.5 per-carry average under Denson.

But with all that success, and a phenomenal 2019 offensive line class to theoretically entice elite running back prospects, there’s a question that persistently chases Denson.

“People want to know why he doesn’t land bigger names,” CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “And there’s something to that.

“But you could say the same thing about wide receiver and some other positions. and I can see both sides of it. You look at a guy like Josh Adams, who wasn’t highly touted, and Denson develops him into a 1,400-yard rusher. So do you need the big names?

“From the people I talk to in coaching, Denson has the ingredients to be an outstanding recruiter. He’s personable, and he’s hard working.”

Attrition has hurt Denson, though, both in his position group and in the state he had spent much of his time recruiting during his time at ND, his native Florida. Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Cardinal Gibbons product Deon McIntosh (East Mississippi Community College) and Cheshire (Conn.) Academy grad C.J. Holmes (walking on at Penn State), for instance, were part of a Kelly-driven January purge.

In the first nine complete recruiting cycles of the Kelly Era 29 of the 205 high school players signed came from Florida (14.2 percent) most of any state. But of the six states that have sent 10 or more players to ND during Kelly’s run, Florida has, by far, the highest attrition rate.

Thirty-one percent of those Florida players ended up transferring, a staggering 45 percent if you count grad transfers. That compares to 14 percent and 38 percent for Ohio, 16 and 26 percent for California, 6 percent and 6 percent for Illinois, 21 percent and 35 percent for Indiana, and 16 percent and 25 percent for Texas.

Interestingly, Notre Dame has seemed to de-emphasize Florida in recruiting recently in favor of Georgia. There isn’t a single Floridian among the 17 commitments in the 2019 class or the three in the 2020 class.

“There are going to be some adjustments,” ND recruiting coordinator Brian Polian said back in March of the program’s national recruiting efforts. “I’m going to be more involved in Texas. Del Alexander will be more involved in Southern California. We’re going to put a bigger emphasis on Georgia, with Terry Joseph and Autry Denson.

“The one thing we feel like, though, is there are Notre Dame guys from ocean to ocean, but we really need to start within that 400-, 500-mile radius before we start.

“We’re not going to build our roster from 2,700 miles away. It’s just not going to happen. We have to re-emphasize the five-, six-hour drive guys. Then spread our wings from there.”

For 2019, Notre Dame has a commitment from Kyren Williams, a three-star running back from St. Louis, who fits that geographical profile. But he also underwhelms from a star standpoint.

“Recruiting reputations are a funny thing,” said Lemming, who did add he believes Kyren Williams will outperform his consensus star rating. “Sometimes they stay with you forever, and sometimes they change overnight.

“I’m working on 2020 kids right now, and there’s a kid at North Shore High in Houston that is the perfect fit for Notre Dame — running back Zach Evans. He has grades. He has everything, including a legitimate five stars. All it takes is landing one guy like that to change a perception.”

Notre Dame running backs coach Autry Denson throw a pass during spring in the Loftus Sports Center in 2015.