Former Notre Dame RB Tarean Folston's dreams are back up and running in the AAF

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

His head coach walked away from the start-up Alliance of American Football venture roughly a month before it launched, and offensive coordinator Michael Vick parachuted out into a consultant’s role just two days before the inaugural season started.

And yet a 40-6 mauling by the Steve Spurrier-led Orlando Apollos Saturday night — predictable given the circumstances handed to the Atlanta Legends on the AAF’s debut weekend — felt more like a dream realized than an elongated night terror for former Notre Dame running back Tarean Folston.

Individually, Folston got 15 touches in the loss — 12 carries for a team-high 32 rushing yards, and three catches for 13, for a team now coached by longtime NFL defensive coach Kevin Coyle, instead of Brad Childress, but still without a replacement for Vick.

“Yeah it’s wild, but I can never lose sight that this is an opportunity that I’m so thankful for,” Folston said this week in a phone interview, 26 months after his college career ended with a six-carry cameo in a 45-27 beatdown at USC on Nov. 26, 2016.

The aftermath was even more bleak for the Cocoa, Fla., product.

Folston pulled a calf muscle at Notre Dame’s Pro Day in March of 2017, recording plodding 40-yard dash times of 4.75 and 4.80. He not only went undrafted weeks later but uninvited to any of the 32 NFL team’s training camps, even for a tryout.

A medical redshirt year taken in 2015 because of a season-ending knee injury (ACL tear) in that year’s season opener against Texas, meant ND’s leading rusher in 2014 could have played as a grad student for the Irish in 2017 or transferred without a wait to finish somewhere else before he committed to the 2017 Pro Day audition process a couple of months earlier.

But pushing ahead toward a pro football career after a 4-8 season, in which he backed up ascending Josh Adams, seemed like the right option at the time, Folston said, and still does.

“I have no regrets, because I still think it will work out in the end,” Folston said. “But what I didn’t count on at the time was the perception that I never got over the torn ACL. I didn’t tell people that I pulled my calf at the Pro Day, and teams instead thought I still had a knee issue.

“Even weeks after, I couldn’t change that perception, even though it wasn’t true. But I never stopped working out, never stopped believing that if someone gave me a chance, my football career could take off.”

Folston — slimmed down a few pounds to 5-foot-10, 209 from his ND playing days — beat out former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and NCAA Division II standout Lawrence Pittman of Wingate University for the Legends’ starting running back spot.

The latter had a tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles in May. Folston’s former ND teammate Adams, undrafted himself in 2018, was a big reason the Eagles couldn’t find a roster spot to keep Pittman.

Robinson was a fifth-round draft choice of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2013 and made 13 starts and played in 54 games, primarily as a running back for the team in four years. He then went careening from tryout to tryout unsuccessfully after the Jaguars let him go at the end of the 2016 season.

“We never played against each other in college,” Folston said of Robinson, a former All-America QB and Big Ten MVP. “But we talk about the rivalry a lot. And it was fun to talk about this year’s game (a 24-17 Irish victory on Sept. 1).”

Folston didn’t attend that game, but he did come back to Notre Dame Stadium for a 19-14 Irish escape of Pitt on Oct. 13. Folston’s brother, James Folston Jr., was a backup defensive end for the Panthers and had two of his 15 tackles on the season against the Irish that day.

“I was talking trash with my brother before and after the game,” Tarean said. “I really wanted him to do well, but I didn’t want his team to. I was cheering for Notre Dame all the way. I’m proud of those guys, proud that they made the playoff. The fact they had an undefeated regular season didn’t surprise me at all.”

At the time, though, Folston himself still faced an uncertain future.

He heard about the AAF through social media and attended, but didn’t participate in, one of the league’s talent-search combines.

“I didn’t have a chance to register for it,” he said. “But I felt if I came to it anyway, I’d be able to meet the right people, maybe make an impression and get them my film.”

Orlando was the franchise that showed the initial interest before Atlanta later picked him up. All eight AAF teams held training camp in San Antonio, Texas, with rosters not finalized until about a week and a half before the opening games.

Former ND running back/wide receiver Amir Carlisle was one of the late roster casualties, released by the AAF’s Birmingham Iron. Folston is one of eight players with Notre Dame ties who did make the cut.

The Legends hit the road again this weekend and face the San Diego Fleet Sunday night (8 p.m. EST; NFL Network). Former Irish offensive lineman John Montelus, who finished at Virginia, is on the Fleet’s roster but was on the inactive list in week one.

“I never take anything for granted,” Folston said. “My focus is on being a better football player every week. Obviously the goal is to eventually get to the NFL, and I’m going to keep working my butt off to make an NFL team or just get in front of some NFL coaches.

“I’ve got the chance I wanted for such a long time. I’m ready to fight every day to keep that alive.”

Atlanta Legends running back Tarean Folston finds an opening during an AAF matchup against the Orlando Apollos, Saturday in Orlando, Fla.
Orlando Apollos’ Leon Orr (93) tracks down Atlanta Legends running back Tarean Folston (26), formerly of Notre Dame, during Folston’s AAF debut last Saturday.

How the players with Notre Dame ties fared last weekend in the AAF debuts:

Arizona Hotshots

• Nyles Morgan (LB): Three tackles in a 38-22 win over Salt Lake.

Atlanta Legends

• Tarean Folston (RB): 32 yards on 12 carries; three catches for 13 yards in a 40-6 loss to Orlando.

Birmingham Iron

• Max Redfield (S): Three tackles in a 26-0 shutout of Memphis.

Orlando Apollos

• Cody Riggs (CB): On inactive list vs. Atlanta.

• Ben Turk (P): Three punts for a 43.3-yard average, long of 57, in a 40-6 rout of Atlanta.

Salt Lake Stallions

• Greer Martini (LB): Seven tackles, with a sack and a QB hurry, in a 38-22 loss to Arizona.

San Antonio Commanders

• Scott Daly (LS): Served as the team’s long snapper on punts and field goals in a 15-6 win over San Diego.

San Diego Fleet

John Montelus (OT): On inactive list vs. San Antonio.