Change of Direction: C.J. Prosise
Mary Green | Friday, September 11, 2015
It all started with a dunk.
When Irish head coach Brian Kelly was searching through his next crop of recruits in the high school class of 2012, he saw a feat of athleticism out of Woodberry Forest School in Virginia that had him eager to get C.J. Prosise in a Notre Dame uniform.
“I saw him dunking a basketball at his high school, and I saw this athlete, and I said, ‘I don’t know where he’s going to play, but we’ve got to take him,’” Kelly said Tuesday. “He’s just that good of an athlete. Loved his personality. Again, his makeup, great fit from a great school. We’ve just got to find a place for him to play.”
Little did Prosise know back then — he admitted, in retrospect, he can’t recall Kelly seeing him play basketball — but that dunk would have him leaving his home in Petersburg, Virginia, headed to Notre Dame for his freshman year as a safety.
Three years later, Prosise returns to Virginia with the Irish, but this time, he will line up in the backfield as the team’s starting running back.
It’s a chain of events Prosise said he couldn’t have predicted when he first came to South Bend.
“You never know where you’re going to be needed, and I’ve always just wanted to be here for my team, and I’ve wanted to do whatever I can to make my team be the best team in the country, so if that means I was at safety, linebacker, receiver, now running back, I’m just doing whatever I can to help the team,” he said Wednesday.
His freshman year, Prosise practiced with the safeties wearing a No. 34 jersey, but he didn’t see much of the playing field as the Irish made their trip to the BCS Championship Game. The next year led to a new position and a new number — lining up with the receivers as No. 20 — because, Kelly said, “he wasn’t a big hitter.”
With a steady confidence a little quieter than that of some of his teammates, Prosise begged to differ.
“I would say I slightly disagree,” he said with a grin. “I feel like I didn’t get my chance to, you know, get in there and hit a little bit on defense, but all I’m saying is, I think that I’m a physical player, but we didn’t really get to see it that much on defense, I guess.”
It’s not that Prosise wasn’t a physical player as a safety, Kelly said. In fact, the head coach said that asset made the senior’s transition across the line of scrimmage and then to the backfield a bit easier.
“He just plays the game fast and physical,” Kelly said. “He doesn’t think about it. So I just think that he’s not afraid of contact. He’s somebody that, whether he’s running the ball or he’s catching the ball, he’s always played that fearless kind of game.”
Prosise said he’s always had the mentality that he wants to help the team win in any way possible, so he wasn’t upset when he was moved after his freshman season, but it did take some adjusting.
“Moving [from defense to offense] at first is kind of like, you get a little skeptical because I’m not used to catching passes from a college quarterback, but once you kind of get into the groove and get used to it,” he said. “ … I don’t know, I feel like I’d still be a good safety if I was still back there, but that’s not how it worked out, but I’m happy where I’m at right now.”
As a receiver his sophomore and junior years, he appeared in every game, making nine starts, and recorded 36 receptions for 588 yards — 516 of those in 2014 — and two touchdowns.
But last spring, his coaches told him he would be on the move again, this time to the running backs’ room under first-year coach Autry Denson.
Kelly, Denson and his teammates praised the quickness and dexterity with which Prosise made the switch throughout the spring, and the new back showed those skills off at the team’s Blue-Gold Game in April, collecting 64 yards on 12 carries, including a team-long 15-yard rush.
He continued that momentum into his second public appearance as a running back, but this time, it mattered a little more, in last week’s season opener against Texas.
With starting junior running back Tarean Folston going down in the first quarter with a torn ACL, Prosise had to step up and take the bulk of Notre Dame’s carries. He showcased how naturally he seemed to have made the transition by tallying a game-high 98 yards on 20 rushes — a figure Kelly said he can maintain throughout the season.
However, Prosise admitted getting out of bed the next two mornings was more challenging than usual.
“I was sore, but you’re going to be sore after a football game,” he said. “That’s just kind of how, kind of the life I chose, but I felt, for the most part, I felt good. I was hurting a little bit, but you’ve just got to move on, get in the ice tub, get treatment and get back on the field.”
Teammates have different theories as to why Prosise was able to transition into the backfield without many visible growing pains. Last week, Folston attributed it to his nature as “a freak athlete,” while graduate student cornerback Matthias Farley said Wednesday it was his combination of speed and size, at 6-foot-1/2 and 220 pounds.
“He doesn’t really look that big,” Farley said. “He walks around, he doesn’t look that big, but when you see him in practice, you’re like, you’re a large individual.
“He’s really, really shifty, which I don’t think we got to see too much of when he was at wide receiver because he runs around, catch the ball. But now you get the ball in his hands early and be able to make plays and make people miss. Obviously, he’s incredibly fast.”
Though he was officially named the starting running back earlier this week, ahead of true freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, Prosise still only has one actual game at the position under his belt. He said there’s still more room for improvement, and he and his head coach agreed on where that needs to come.
“I think the fundamentals really of the position — stance, pocket for taking handoffs, the right steps,” Kelly said. “I think really — why he’s been able to move into the position that he is in is because of his physical ability, his maturity and understanding the offense. But it’s certainly a work in progress as it related to the fundamentals.
“You’re not seeing some of the things that I’m seeing fundamentally that need to continue to grow for him because they could end up hurting us down the road if we don’t get better at them, and he knows that, too. So it’s the work that we have to do every day in practice on the fundamentals of the position that are really central to his development.”
The next time he takes the field, he will do so in front of more familiar faces than usual — about 50, Prosise estimated, made up of family members and friends. Many of them will make the hour-and-a-half drive from Petersburg to Charlottesville to see the running back play in person for the first time in an Irish uniform.
“I’m going to be pumped up,” he said. “I’ve actually been pumped up this whole week, so it’s definitely going to be a great time.”
However, he said he isn’t naïve enough to expect a friendly crowd on the road against an ACC opponent, which happens to be the first school that offered him a scholarship in high school.
“I might be going home, and I might be playing in front of a lot of family, but it’s still going to be at Scott Stadium, and I know they’re gonna be rowdy and ready for us to come in there and play them,” he said.
With his friends and family watching him play in the blue and gold for the first time, much less the first time as a running back, Prosise himself will still be enjoying the new feelings that come from this latest transition in his career.
“Oh, it’s so much fun,” he said. “When you just hear people talking and you just get going and then you see the O-line running in, hitting, I feel like there’s nothing better in football to see.”