Notre Dame RB coach Autry Denson hired as head coach at Charleston Southern

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Autry Denson’s next step in his football career will be as a head coach.

Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher and running backs coach of four seasons has left the Irish to take over the FCS program at Charleston Southern. The Christian university in South Carolina named Denson as its head coach on Monday.

“This is a great day for Buccaneer football,” Charleston Southern athletic director Jeff Barber said in a press release. “Autry Denson is a special person in many ways and stands out as both a recruiter and a coach. More importantly, he cares about his players as people first and will, therefore, have great influence on their hearts and lives and will develop each of them into outstanding young men.”

Denson’s introductory press conference will be held Wednesday morning. He’s replacing Mark Tucker, who resigned in December following two seasons leading the program. The Buccaneers, a member of the Big South conference, finished the 2018 season 5-6 and ranked near the bottom of the FCS in passing offense (No. 123 of 124), total offense (No. 119) and scoring offense (No. 99).

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading, and serving,” Denson said in the press release. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability, and community.”

Denson covered a lot of ground in South Bend as a player and coach. After a star high school career at Davie (Fla.) Nova, Denson enrolled at Notre Dame in 1995. In his four seasons as a running back, Denson tallied a school record 4,318 rushing yards. He also accumulated 43 rushing touchdowns and 5,327 all-purpose yards, both good for second in program history.

Denson returned to Notre Dame as a coach in 2015. The Irish gave him his first job at a Power Five program following college coaching stops at Bethune-Cookman, Miami (Ohio) and USF.

Denson didn’t wait long to impact Notre Dame’s running backs. He helped guide C.J. Prosise, a former safety and wide receiver, through a position switch as a senior. As a result, Prosise finished the 2015 season with 1,032 rushing yards and became a third-round NFL Draft pick in April 2016.

Denson oversaw the entire career of Josh Adams, who rushed for 835 yards as a freshman in 2015. Adams entered the NFL after totaling 3,198 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns in just three seasons. The Philadelphia Eagles signed Adams as an undrafted free agent.

In 2018, Dexter Williams fell five yards shy of becoming the third running back to rush for 1,000 yards under Denson at Notre Dame. Williams reached that total in just nine games after serving a four-game suspension to start the season.

In two of Denson’s four seasons, the Irish set records for yards per carry — a modern-era 5.6 per carry mark in 2015 and an all-time standard of 6.3 in 2017.

The most stunning stat of Denson’s tenure may be the stellar ball security his running backs displayed. There has not been a single lost fumble by a running back in the last 1,024 carries and 101 receptions made by the position. The last lost fumble by a running back came in Denson’s first season when Boston College recovered an Adams fumble at the goal line late in the second quarter of a 19-16 Irish win at Fenway Park.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said in the press release. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame. He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men. This is where Autry touched our program the deepest. He’s got a way with young people and truly provides spiritual mentorship that positively affects everyone around him.”

Denson’s time at Notre Dame didn’t come without flaws. He struggled to consistently recruit top-notch talent at the running back position. None of the six running backs to sign with Notre Dame during Denson’s tenure were ranked as four-star recruits by both Rivals and 247Sports. Only two — C.J. Holmes and Kyren Williams — received a four-star rating from one of those two recruiting services.

Rivals ranked Holmes as a four-star recruit and the No. 5 all-purpose back in the 2017 class. Holmes was dismissed from Notre Dame’s program in January 2018 and has since transferred to Penn State.

247Sports slates Williams as a four-star recruit and the No. 12 running back in the 2019 class. Williams, who signed in December, is one of 10 early enrollees already on campus to start classes this week for Notre Dame’s spring semester.

Denson’s replacement won’t have to be in a rush to finish the 2019 recruiting class with Williams already on campus. But the Irish will likely want to make a hire sooner rather than later to allow the new assistant coach to start pursuing running backs in the 2020 class and preparing for spring practice in March.

Two sources at Notre Dame indicated it’s too early to identify leading candidates to replace Denson.

Tom Lemming, CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst, said the Irish should aim high for its running backs coach and make sure he can recruit well.

“There are a lot of good ones out there,” said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “The key is to make sure you’re bringing in a great recruiter. Obviously, you have to be a coach. Coaches always look much better when they have great running backs.”

Lemming pointed to Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins as a player Notre Dame should have had a better chance at landing in the 2017 recruiting class. Instead, Dobbins signed with the Buckeyes to play for former Irish running backs coach Tony Alford.

The coaching staff at La Grange (Texas) High, where Dobbins played, seemed partial to Notre Dame, Lemming said, but the Irish didn’t make a push for him early in his recruitment. Notre Dame offered Dobbins in February of his junior year, a little more than a month before he committed to Ohio State. Dobbins has rushed for 2,456 yards in his first two seasons with the Buckeyes.

“The key is to identify them early and zoom in on them all year,” Lemming said. “You have to identify them as sophomore. Normally running back is a position where you can tell if they’re great in their sophomore year in high school. Get a running back coach who can do that and Notre Dame will be in business.”

But the Irish will need more than a recruiter at running backs coach. Whoever replaces Denson will need to be able to develop a running back group thin on star power. Finding someone who can help Williams and sophomore running back Jafar Armstong, a former wide receiver, reach their potential should be a priority too.

Notre Dame running backs coach Autry Denson has been hired as the head coach at Charleston Southern.