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Green: New assistants play crucial part in breakout seasons

| Friday, November 20, 2015

We’ve talked enough about Notre Dame’s “breakout players” of 2015.

You might say it’s impossible to talk too much about players like DeShone Kizer, who had a lock on the third-string quarterback slot just six months ago, C.J. Prosise, whose emergence in the backfield has made him one of Notre Dame’s most invaluable assets, or Romeo Okwara, who has evolved into the monster pass rusher Irish fans have been begging for years. There’s too much of the improbable going on right now for the topic to be completely exhausted.

Members of the Irish coaching staff stand on the sidelines during the Blue-Gold Game on April 18. Notre Dame’s new position coaches have found success in their first year despite injuries to starters.Erin Rice | The Observer
Members of the Irish coaching staff stand on the sidelines during the Blue-Gold Game on April 18. Notre Dame’s new position coaches have found success in their first year despite injuries to starters.

We can certainly celebrate their seasons and the success of the quarterback, running back and defensive line groups as a whole, but we have other things do to as well.

It’s time to recognize the men behind those players in each game and practice as well.

After all, who would’ve guessed three position groups led by first-year assistants would be arguably the strongest on this team?

But that’s been the case this season, with quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford, running backs coach Autry Denson and defensive line coach Keith Gilmore guiding their units to success through these first 10 games.

Denson and Sanford certainly weren’t dealt an easy hand before the seasons began, let alone in the first two games. Greg Bryant’s suspension for the season meant Denson had only one veteran back to rely on in junior Tarean Folston, and then Folston tore his ACL the first game of the season.

But the transition in starters has been seamless from Folston to Prosise, who has looked like he’s played in the backfield all along — and five games of over 100 yards on the ground doesn’t hurt, either. Then when Prosise was knocked out in the first quarter against Pittsburgh two weeks ago with a concussion, which kept him from last week’s win as well, freshman Josh Adams stepped in to put the run game on his back and 288 combined rushing yards on his stat sheet.

Losing two starters and having to rely on a true freshman would be tough for any coach, let alone one in his first season with a team. But head coach Brian Kelly said the credit goes to Denson for his guidance of his players every step of the way.

“I just think he’s a calming influence to those young players,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He’s a mentor in a sense that he can really do a great job off the field with them, spends time with them.”

Much of the same can be said about Sanford, who started his job at Notre Dame in the midst of a spring quarterback battle between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, only to lose Golson to a transfer. While Zaire possesses the talent and confidence to be a starter, there’s no doubt that an inexperienced quarterback and a first-year coach sounds like a losing combination.

That combination became even worse when Zaire broke his ankle against Virginia, giving way to sophomore (but really redshirt freshman, as Kelly is prone to point out) DeShone Kizer, he of less than a quarter of shaky play to his name at that point.

But just as with Prosise and Adams, Kizer stepped in and hasn’t looked back since, much of which can be attributed to the leadership and demeanor of Sanford, who has been able to take advantage of Kizer’s size and maturity in the unexpected transition.

“I think where we’re feeling his immediate effects is he’s done an incredible job of mentoring and coaching the quarterbacks,” Kelly said Tuesday.

And the defensive line dealt with its own season-ending injury during fall camp as well, to senior Jarron Jones, but Gilmore has brought out the best of an already talent-heavy line featuring two-time captain Sheldon Day, Okwara, Isaac Rochell and Daniel Cage, with spurts of Jerry Tillery mixed in.

The line was probably the biggest question mark of Notre Dame’s defense before the season began, with Day and Jones coming back from injuries that cost them significant time in 2014 and another new coach at the helm. But it’s been the rock of the Irish defense this season, especially with the advancement of Day’s leadership and the emergence of Okwara and his nine sacks so far, good for eighth in the nation — another unexpected from the preseason.

But it’s apparent from a recent episode of Showtime’s “A Season with Notre Dame Football” that Gilmore fits perfectly in the D-line room, bringing the crew pizza and hosting a party for Tillery’s birthday, a scene that showed the father-like quality players said Gilmore brought to the group during the spring.

So while it’s ultimately up to the players to go about their business on the field in order to get the win, the men standing behind them have played just as big a part in that success for this 9-1 team.

Not too bad for three newcomers.

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

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About Mary Green

Current Assistant Managing Editor, former Sports Editor of The Observer | Follow Mary on Twitter: @maryegreen15

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