April 21, 2015
Nick Martin, a center for the University of Notre Dame football team, loved seeing Fighting Irish running back Greg Bryant hit the hole created for him by the offensive line and then accelerate during the 86th Blue-Gold final spring game Saturday at the LaBar Practice Complex on the Notre Dame campus.
What Martin loved even more was the yardage Bryant gained after running into a wall of defenders.
"We all saw what Greg Bryant was doing out there," Martin said. "Everybody thought he was down, and then he's pushing for three or four more yards. That only fuels the o-line. When you see that from a running back you just want to go to battle for him. Our running backs are not only explosive, but they also give great second effort."
On a day when much of the attention was focused on quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, glimpses of a bruising and explosive running game emerged in the Notre Dame spring game to indicate the Irish have a solid foundation on offense heading into the 2015 season.
Bryant, a 5-foot-10, 205-pound junior with jackhammer force, credited new assistant coaches Mike Sanford (offensive coordinator) and Autry Denson (running backs) for putting more drive into the Irish ground game.
"I love the way we attack the defenders now," Bryant said. "Before, we were just getting by. Now, we really try to attack the defenders. We broke a lot of tackles in the spring. I feel like our attitude to attack separates us--and not just our explosiveness."
With an overpowering offensive line clearing the way, Notre Dame ran 55 running plays on Saturday, racking up 243 yards of rushing (3.6 yards per play). C.J. Prosise led the Irish with 12 carries for 64 yards (and a long gain of 15). Bryant gained 38 yards on nine carries, and Tarean Folston powered ahead for 24 yards on nine carries.
"Today was a day we really wanted to emphasize the run game and get our offensive line working together and get into a good rhythm," Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. "We ran some tempo with them as well, and we really think that's the strength of our group. We wanted to see them working together and I think we saw that today."
Bryant, who gained 289 yards last season, loved the way the running backs and the offensive line meshed in the spring.
"We have good chemistry with the offensive line," Bryant said. "We all hang out together. When we're in the huddle, they're encouraging me and I'm encouraging them. They're slapping me in the chest. I'm slapping them in the chest. I feel like we have really good chemistry, and that we're really close.
"Chemistry is really important. It keeps the team going. If Everett isn't on the same page, if we're not good friends, it's hard to be on the field and try to figure something out. Everyone on the team is good friends. That's something that really helps us out."
A major weapon for the Irish will be depth and versatility at the running back position.
"What's going to give nightmares to defensive coordinators from the other teams is that somebody always fresh is going to come in," Bryant said. "If Tarean comes in for me, he's going to be fresh. He could pop for 60 or 80 (yards). If I go in for Tarean, I'll come in with fresh legs. That means that I could pop for 60 or 80. When C.J. comes in, with his speed, he can come in at any point in time and go for 80. What's going to give the other team problems is we can rotate anybody in, so we'll be fresh the entire game."
In addition to depth, Kelly saw a running back corps this spring that displayed speed around the edge, as well as big backs who are hard to take down. He saw backs with drive and backs with the vision to see the holes and turn on their explosiveness. He also saw backs with the grit to keep the pads low.
"All three of them are capable of being a really solid force," Kelly said. "Folston is just really solid in all phases. I thought Greg did some pretty good things today. But again, the guy that keeps jumping out at us is C.J. Prosise."
Prosise, a 6-0, 220 senior, came to Notre Dame as a safety. He was moved to wide receiver, and when he had some dynamic plays on sweeps he started getting looks at running back. He ran the ball 10 times last season for 126 yards (12.6 yards a carry average). His potential to break loose and burst into the end zone in 2015 has the Irish excited.
"C.J. Prosise was impressive with not only his ability to break into the second level, yet he also showed his toughness in lowering his pads and playing physical," Kelly said. "He's really rounding into a guy that you're going to fear. When you turn on the film, you're going to look at him and go, `He scares me.'"
Prosise is ready to help the Irish as a running back and a wide receiver.
"I think I can do a lot of things for this offense," Prosise said. "I know I can run routes and catch the ball and make plays in open space. Out of the backfield I can get the ball on the edge and also run inside a lot, like I did (in the Blue-Gold) game. I want to do whatever will help the team the most. We'll figure that out in the fall.
"Playing running back feels more natural for me," Prosise added. "This was my first spring at running back, and I feel really comfortable with it."
Prosise is excited about the potential of the Irish offense to unleash a quick-strike attack.
"Our passing game is so good, with the deep threats we have, and then we have guys in the backfield who can hit a home run," Prosise said. "That gives our offense a different dynamic. I think the running backs showed this spring that we did a good job of running the ball. Hopefully in the fall, we'll see a lot more running and also from the quarterbacks. I think we've got a good running game."
Folston, who gained 889 yards last season, said the Irish running backs adjusted well to the changes in the coaching staff.
"Even though we have a new quarterbacks coach (Sanford) and a new running backs coach (Denson), we just made the steps a little different. So I feel like we have a really good running attack," Folston said. "What I really like about our running game is we have very athletic guys who make plays. We have different size running backs with different skills, so you have to approach everybody differently. We're going to be a headache for the defense. We're all versatile. We all have different ways of making plays, of making the first guy miss and getting more yards.
"One thing I know we all do the same is get vertical. I know we do that the same, and we run our feet on contact. That's a big emphasis."
As Martin saw the Irish run game develop an edge during spring practice, he and the offensive line got swept up in the excitement of the explosiveness the Irish can hit opponents with in 2015.
"As an offensive line, you always want to run the ball, whether it's third and long or third and short," Martin said. "You just want to run the ball. It's fun for us, especially when you have the running backs like we have. When you win the battle in the trenches, good things are going to happen.
"Greg, Tarean, C.J. ... if we do our job, we know they're going to make plays. When you have running backs as talented as we have, you really want to block more."
As the Irish forge ahead for the 2015 season opener in prime time Sept. 5 against Texas at Notre Dame Stadium, Martin and the Irish offensive line will have plenty of opportunities to block for what Irish fans hope is a high-voltage ground game.
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent