Noie: Autry Denson has no worries about Notre Dame run game

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WITH THE CHANGES

It’s present every day, every night, every week for every one of the next three months in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex meeting room reserved for the running backs of the No. 12 Notre Dame football team.

Position coach Autry Denson senses it. Nurtures it. Feels the presence of both every time he closes the door, pulls up a chair and starts another strategy session with his guys. He asks for nothing from them, except equal parts compassion and competition. In the meeting room. On the practice field. Away from the game. All day. Every day.

Compassion. Competition.

“I have eight Alphas and they all want the ball,” said Denson, still the all-time leading rusher in school history at 4,318 yards. “Because they have a relationship that is built on love, there is no animosity. It is the culture in that room that they feed off each other. They love each other.

“And whoever’s in the game, they understand that they are carrying the mantle for everyone in the room.”

That may be a fine line for team building and morale boosting,

but one key question lingers as Notre Dame prepares to open the 2018 season Saturday at home against No. 14 Michigan — who’s going to take the ball and the running back job and run with it? Own it?

Denson looks around the room daily and sees not one guy. Or two. Or three. He sees all eight backs — which would include a pair of walk-ons — who not only want to be great, but plan on it. These guys. With this team. This season.

“There’s no way to prepare to be second,” Denson said. “The only mindset for them is to prepare to be the guy.”

The guy to replace “the guy.” In 2017, the run game was simple. Hand it to Josh Adams and let him do what he did behind a pair of future first-round NFL draft picks. He ran for 1,430 yards. He averaged nearly seven yards (6.9) per carry. He scored nine times. He kept opposing defenses on its collective heels by averaging 110 rushing yards per game.

Adams is gone. So are Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson.

Who’s the next Josh Adams? Tony Jones Jr.? Maybe. Dexter Williams? Maybe, although he’ll likely sit the first four games under a university-issued suspension. How about Jafar Armstrong? Avery Davis? Perhaps, though they were at wide receiver and quarterback this time last year. Now they’re running backs and likely will factor into coordinator Chip Long’s game plan Saturday night. Don’t forget freshmen C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith, who’ve shown flashes of the future.

Notre Dame may not have the next Josh Adams. Denson doesn’t want one. He doesn’t want Jones to be Adams 2.0. He wants him to be the best Jones he can be. Ditto for Williams. and Armstrong and Davis. Right down the running back line.

It’s not about picking up where Adams and his Heisman Trophy push left off last November before #33Trucking broke down and spent too much time in the repair shop.

“Every last one of those guys has to prepare if they’re going to be the guy,” Denson said. “That’s where our culture comes in. The expectations have gone even higher since Josh has been here and set the bar really high.”

Line of succession, and success

Little seems to deter Denson. No gray skies and bad days in his world. Just smiles and sunshine. Ask him if he worries that the Irish run game won’t get anywhere near the expected 200 yards per game standard set by Long and he’ll chuckle as if to say, “Ha, that’s a good one.” Ask him how the Irish are going to compensate for not having at least one running back who’s been there and done that over the long haul of a season and he refuses to be doom and gloom.

Notre Dame’s going to find a way to run the ball, Denson promises, because that’s what this program always does.

Remember when Tarean Folston was lost for the season with a knee injury in the 2015 opener against Texas? Denson does. He remembers hearing rumblings how the run game was going to be a disaster the rest of the way. No way. Enter C.J. Prosise, who promptly delivered 1,032 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. The previous two years, he’d run for a total of 126 yards.

Remember when Prosise rode that wave into the NFL draft? Denson does. He remembers hearing how the run game was headed in reverse. Enter Adams. All he did was become the first Irish in school history to run for at least 800 yards in each of his first two seasons after finishing 2016 with 933 yards and five scores.

Now to 2018. No current Irish back has averaged more than 23 rushing yards in a game. Or hit 1,000 for a season. Or scored more than nine touchdowns in their careers. Denson believes the Irish run game still will be the Irish run game. Somebody’s going to step in and deliver because history tells us that somebody always does.

They better.

“You know what’s funny?” Denson wondered. “Since I’ve been here, I have really been blessed to have guys with a skill-set versatility with the position and guys who can do different jobs.

“Collectively, we can do a really good job.”

That’s because the position lines up differently than say, the quarterback spot. In that room, there’s a clear No. 1 in Brandon Wimbush. There’s a clear No. 2 in Ian Book. But the running backs’ room has no numbering system. There’s not a 1A or a 1B. Or even a 1C or 1D. Just a group of guys with a bunch of different skills, all of whom are expected to contribute.

“We,” Brian Kelly said, “rely on different skill sets.”

Quick runners. Power runners. Guys who can make plays in the passing game. Maybe even throw a pass. Jones likely gets the first chance to run it. Williams will have to wait until sometime next month. Armstrong and Davis also will be involved. Maybe a freshman. Denson’s confidence doesn’t drop the deeper the Irish go down the depth chart.

“Anybody we put in there’s going to be able to perform,” he said. “That’s just what we do in that room.”

That includes someone maybe nobody saw coming as recently as last spring. That’s when Armstrong, who spent last season at wide receiver, moved from one meeting room to the next. He didn’t show much in those 15 spring practices. But the more work he had in preseason camp, the more it looked like the Irish might have something special. Kelly saw it. Denson saw it. The other running backs saw it. Even the media saw it.

Keep an eye on No. 8 this weekend. This month. This season.

The more Denson worked with Armstrong, a true sophomore and unsung recruit out of Kansas, the more he was reminded of a certain unsung recruit out of Florida who arrived at Notre Dame in 1995. A guy not many talked about when he arrived. A guy who auditioned that first preseason camp at cornerback and wide receiver.

A guy who became the school’s all-time leading rusher, future NFL back and, now, the running back coach.

Like Denson, Armstrong loves to practice. Wants it. Needs it. Craves reps like candy. Feed him. Work him. The more he does, the better he plays.

“That is one thing I loved as a player,” Denson said. “I loved to prepare. My confidence came from my preparation. I could play four quarters as fast as humanly possible without getting tired because you prepared that way.

“That’s what he loves. He loves the process.”

Don’t be fooled with Armstrong’s inexperience. He operates like he already has the answers. He just might.

“Jafar has already figured out that if you enjoy the process, which is where you spend most of your time,” Denson said, “the game takes care of itself.”

The games are about to start. For real. Twelve of them. An Irish running back is going to have to deliver. This week. Next week. Might be the same guy. Might be someone different. Denson’s confident they will. He senses it. He sees it.

It’s almost time to turn his guys loose.

“We have a standard in that room,” he said. “We’re going to give a God-honored effort with a God-honored attitude. We are going to outwork anybody they’re going to put out there in front of us.”

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tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

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Running back Jafar Armstrong has run his way into relevance during Notre Dame preseason camp. 
Tony Jones Jr. leads Notre Dame’s backfield in experience with 44 carries last season.
Junior Avery Davis has transitioned from throwing passes to catching passes to defending passes in less than two years at Notre Dame.