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Hadley: As Prosise goes, so does ND

| Friday, October 2, 2015

You won’t find Notre Dame’s most important offensive player under center, showing poise far beyond that of a typical sophomore. He’s not split out wide either, with the ability to speed past defensive backs for massive gains.

He’s in the backfield, with enough elusiveness and strength to put up some of the best rushing numbers Notre Dame has seen in recent history.

A lot of the talk surrounding the Irish may focus on sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer and junior receiver Will Fuller, but senior running back C.J. Prosise is the one who really spearheads the Notre Dame attack. And if the Irish are to defeat Clemson this weekend, they absolutely need Prosise to continue his torrid start.

In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that as Prosise goes, so will the Irish, not just against the Tigers, but this entire season. If Notre Dame manages to advance to the College Football Playoff at the end of the year, it will be because of Prosise.

His numbers are impressive, even before you consider the fact this is Prosise’s first season at running back, and the only reason he is starting is because of a season-ending injury to junior Tarean Folston in the first game of the year.

Prosise has compiled 600 rushing yards on just 74 attempts, as well as six touchdowns. That puts him statistically right alongside Heisman favorites Nick Chubb of Georgia and Leonard Fournette of LSU.

He has done this despite the added pressure that came when starting quarterback Malik Zaire went down for the season with a fractured ankle. Suddenly, with Kizer taking snaps, head coach Brian Kelly had to place his confidence and the fate of Notre Dame’s season on Prosise’s legs.

To be fair, Kizer and Fuller have been impressive thus far into the season. But on the whole, the passing attack for the Irish has been merely adequate at best, ranking 53rd in the nation in yards per game and 21st in touchdowns. By comparison, the rushing attack ranks 12th in both those categories.

Even the defense cannot carry the Irish. While certainly talented and deep in its own right, this year’s squad is nothing like the 2012 unit that carried the team to the national championship. They give up plenty of points, are inconsistent and have just three takeaways.

And this weekend Kizer is facing his first road start in one of the most difficult environments the Irish will play in this year against a defense that ranks 12th in passing defense.

Prosise will have to carry the Irish, even more than he has the past few games. Clemson surrenders 114.7 rushing yards per game this year. That won’t be even close to enough for a Notre Dame win. What’s more, the Tigers know what’s coming. Stopping Prosise will be their top priority.

Earlier this year, Kelly said he didn’t think Prosise was capable of 25 carries per game. Instead, he said, he wanted to develop freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams to spread the attempts on the ground.

Williams and Adams did just that last week against Massachusetts, and Prosise didn’t see the field for most of the second half.

But against Clemson, he might not get a rest. Come late fourth quarter, he could be needed, either to drive down the field or eat up clock and hold onto the football. He’s never taken on that much of a workload before.

The injury bug finally left Notre Dame alone against UMass, and the Irish absolutely cannot afford for it to come back. Kelly will have the unenviable task of balancing Prosise’s workload and the need to win this game.

Because the Irish need to win this game, badly. Notre Dame’s strength of schedule, which was relatively weak heading into the year, has tumbled through the first four weeks of the season. The Georgia Tech win is much less impressive now after the Yellow Jackets’ loss to Duke last week, and future matchups against USC and Stanford have already taken hits due to early defeats. Clemson on the road is looking like the biggest game of the season.

In the biggest game of the season, the best player needs to step up. The Irish can win if Kizer stays solid but unspectacular. They can win if Will Fuller does not haul in two touchdowns and 150 yards. They can even win if the defense struggles a bit. But they can’t win if Prosise gets stuffed, shut down or otherwise held in check.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Greg Hadley

Greg Hadley is a senior from Rockville, Maryland, majoring in political science with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He served as The Observer's Editor-in-Chief for the 2015-2016 term and currently covers Notre Dame baseball and women's basketball.

Contact Greg