Dec. 10, 2015
By Todd Burlage
The unexpected ascent and arrival for University of Notre Dame junior running back C.J. Prosise didn’t start with a touchdown catch or a punt return, his unorthodox journey to the University actually began with a basketball dunk.
Doing little more than goofing around and showing off in his gym at Woodberry Forest High School near Richmond, Virginia, Prosise didn’t even realize he was performing an impromptu dunk show when Fighting Irish head football coach Brian Kelly was there on a recruiting visit.
“It was him dunking a basketball, I saw this athlete,” Kelly recalls of a lightly-celebrated three-star high school football recruit who barely reached top-400 player status on any national Internet rankings. “And I said, ‘I don’t know where he’s going to play, but we’ve got to take him. We’ve just got to find a place for him to play.’”
And while finding Prosise an appropriate position took awhile — and was steered very much by circumstance and injury — there’s no debate, in hindsight, that Kelly found the perfect place for Prosise when his rookie running back became one of the most surprising stories and best players in the country this season.
A roster shortage at running back predicated an experimental position switch for Prosise from wide receiver to backup tailback during the 2015 spring season, before a subsequent knee injury to starting tailback Tarean Folston in the opening game against the University of Texas immediately elevated Prosise to starter. Unimaginable success at his new position has now made Prosise a legitimate all-American candidate and a major cog to Notre Dame’s offensive success this season.
“He just plays the game fast and physical, and he doesn’t think about it,” Kelly says of Prosise, a 6-0, 220-pound dual-threat running back who also remains one of the best receivers and fastest players on the team. “He’s not afraid of contact. Whether he’s running the ball or catching the ball, he’s always played that fearless kind of game. [His success] is probably about the way he competes more than anything else.”
A player’s performance and a coach’s confidence has allowed Prosise to become one of the most productive running backs in Notre Dame history and kept him in or around the top 10 nationally in nearly every important statistical category this season, including rushing yards per game, yards per carry and scoring.
A POSITION DECISION
From the outside looking in, watching Prosise move so seamlessly from wide receiver to running back bordered on incredible at this elite level of college football. But ask the player, and Prosise explains that his unbelievable success remained relatively mundane after treating his position switch with welcome instead of worry because it served as an opportunity to increase his role as an Irish player.
“Going from receiver to running back, the transition was not that difficult because I already knew a lot about the offense. That part was easy,” says Prosise, who initially came to Notre Dame as a defensive back before moving to wide receiver as a freshman. “Whatever the coaches want me to do, I’m all in because every time they’ve asked me to make a [position] switch, it was what was best for the team and what was best for me.”
The production and milestones Prosise has reached in his first full season as a running back make it hard to argue:
*Quick Start — Prosise wasn’t even the Irish opening-day starter at tailback, but through the first four games this season, he still rushed for 600 yards — an all-time school rushing record through the first four outings of a season. Prosise also added six touchdowns in those four games.
*Dual-Threat Danger — When Prosise was held to only 50 rushing yards during an Oct. 3, 24-22, loss against Clemson in a monsoon, he responded with four catches and 100 receiving yards, becoming only the second player in Irish history (Raghib “Rocket” Ismail) to record both a 100-yard rushing and a 100-yard receiving game in the same season.
*Score At Will — After rushing for three touchdowns against Navy and Georgia Tech, Prosise needed only six games to join Reggie Brooks (1992) as the only two Irish running backs with multiple games of at least three touchdowns in the last 100 years.
“C.J. does something that shocks me every week,” Irish wide receiver Will Fuller says of his talented teammate. “I’m looking at him breaking tackles and gaining extra yards. It’s crazy. You’ve got to really stay on your block with C.J. He can spring anything.”
Fuller’s praise is just another testimonial to put alongside Prosise’s personal assessment that provides a bright look into what the future holds.
“There is still so much room for improvement. I’m just getting my feet wet,” Prosise says. “I’m still just learning how to be a running back, what it takes on a daily basis to try and how to get better. I have a long way to go and a lot to learn.”
Kelly agrees, explaining that the offensive knowledge Prosise gained when working as a wide receiver has flattened any learning curve since his move to running back.
“Everything relative to the offense, [Prosise] didn’t have to think about it,” Kelly explains. “The only thing he has had to think about is really the mechanical pieces of running the football. Other than that, it has been a natural transition.”
All of which brings Prosise to a difficult dilemma after this season that nobody could’ve seen coming. After not playing during his freshman year in 2012, Prosise has another year of college eligibility remaining in 2016.
“I just stay level-headed and just keep going about my work and business the same way every week,” Prosise says. “There is so much more to do here.”
Moving from wide receiver to running back gave Prosise a chance to showcase a set of dual-threat and big-play abilities that is attracting attention from opposing coaches.
Understandably, Prosise has gathered a lot of the Irish football headlines and attention. But he is also quick to thank and pass any personal praise onto first-year Irish running backs coach Autry Denson for helping to transform a solid wide receiver from last season into an overnight running back sensation this year.
Under Denson’s care, Prosise has evolved from a player with only 10 rushing attempts in 2014 — all from his slot receiver position — into a workhorse running back who has physically and productively held up very well while averaging about 20 carries a game this season.
“Who else would I want coaching me other than the best running back to ever play here?” Prosise said in the spring when Denson was introduced as the new leader of his position group.
A younger demographic knows Denson as the rookie Irish running backs coach, an older generation remembers Denson as the program’s all-time leading rusher. Prosise recognizes and appreciates Denson for both.
With 4,318 career rushing yards, nobody has gained more at Notre Dame than Denson did from 1995-98. Denson also ranks second all-time behind only Allen Pinkett (49) among Irish ground scorers.
“Autry Denson does a great job,” Kelly says. “He’s able to have conversations about the position that are real in a way he’s played the position, so he can really impact [Prosise] with a lot of knowledge, so that’s been very helpful in his learning curve.”
Denson’s Irish legacy remains so important, his picture hangs on the wall inside the running backs meeting room at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, a daily reminder for what Prosise is striving for.
“When you walk in that room and see [Denson] on the wall and he’s in there coaching too,” Prosise says, “you definitely want to be great.” But one thing Prosise has learned is that “great” isn’t good enough under Denson’s watch.
“I want guys to be legendary,” Denson says. “That means you really want to give maximum effort in everything you do so that when you leave Notre Dame, you can be legendary. You want to be the best at everything you do.”
A message that Calvin Junior Prosise takes to the field every game, and holds in his heart everyday.