Since his arrival at Notre Dame, head coach Brian Kelly has built his program around the philosophy of “next man in.” Kelly has preached the mantra to Notre Dame players, fans, and recruits all around the country for six years now. After last season’s collapse, which was a result of an unprecedented amount of injuries followed by a lack of depth on Notre Dame’s bench, many Irish fans had grown tired of the slogan and the fact that Kelly had not done his job recruiting and creating this culture. A few young players made names for themselves in place of their injured teammates, but overall, Notre Dame lacked the ability to throw the “next man in” and compete at the same high level.
2015, however, has been a much different story for Notre Dame. The Irish have experienced similar troubles, having to overcome multiple season ending injuries to starters, but have truly embraced Kelly’s new motto for this season, “culture beats scheme.” The team entered the season hungry to erase the bad memories from last season and prepared for any obstacle that might get in the way. When injuries began to set in once again, this time at the beginning of the season rather than towards the end, backups were finally prepared to become the “next man in.”
Injuries are a storyline that have dominated Notre Dame football over the past two seasons, but rather than explain why the Irish collapsed, injuries have been part of the reason the team has done so well this season. A number of underclassmen have stepped into starting roles for the Irish and experienced success, and this past Saturday was no different. As time wound down in the first quarter Saturday, Notre Dame’s star running back C.J. Prosise headed to the locker room after taking a big blow. Prosise has ran his way into the discussion for national awards while filling in for Notre Dame’s starting running back Tarean Folston, who was injured in the win over Texas in week one. Prosise made the switch from wide receiver to running back this past offseason, and has excelled in his role as the “next man in.” As Prosise walked into the visitors’ locker room at Heinz Field, adding to the list of injured Irish players, it was time for someone to do the same for him.
There was a sense of panic, to say the least, surrounding the program when Notre Dame’s starting quarterback and running back were lost for the season in the first two weeks of the season, but their underclassmen replacements adjusted to their new roles quickly. They have carried the Irish to an 8-1 record. Rather than panic once again when Prosise left the game, the Notre Dame faithful seemed to have confidence in his replacement, freshman Josh Adams. The team has responded positively to injuries all season long, and it was clear that Adams would fill in nicely after the first snap he took. Adams had already made some highlight plays earlier in the year, but no one expected the Warrington, Pennsylvania native to have quite the performance he did on Saturday. Adams rushed for 147 yards on 20 carries on his way to earning the game ball from his head coach. “That felt good,” Adams said of the achievement. “Anytime anyone gets the game ball, that means we did well as a team, and that means whoever got the game ball, that guy contributed. So it just felt good to be able to help my team out and be able to get in there, play hard and play for my teammates.”
Adams may have gotten awarded with the game ball for his performance, but he was not about to take all the credit for it. It was just another example of the culture Kelly has built in South Bend. “Our offensive line is just incredible, and they make it easy on me,” Adams said. “They’re really in there fighting in the trenches for me, so I have to do the best I can. And with all the running backs, they’re a big part of our success, so we just have to congratulate them for working so hard for us, and we just have to do our job as a unit.”
It was later announced that Prosise sustained a concussion and shoulder injury, but Kelly said that he is hopeful his running back can return next weekend against Wake Forest, which leads everyone to ask the same question – what does Josh Adams’ performance mean for Notre Dame going forward?
Kelly has not been shy about wanting to limit the amount of carries that Prosise gets in hopes to keep him fresh all season long. Considering Prosise’s injury, this will be especially important as Notre Dame makes a push for the playoff. A balanced running and passing attack will be key for Notre Dame moving forward, and the Irish will no doubt need to continue to lean on the success of their running game. Adams’ emergence as a capable back will certainly effect the offensive game plan in the future, and Kelly touched on this in his post game press conference, saying, “I think he proved to everybody that he’s capable against a very good defense in Pittsburgh of getting deserved carries, earned carries. He earned that opportunity in this game. I think he can lessen the load for C.J. and provide us with another option in there, as well.”
As the season continues to move along and Notre Dame continues to move up in the polls, look for Adams to take some carries away from Prosise, especially in the next games against Wake Forest and Boston College. These are two games in which the Irish could have backups playing early in the second half. If Notre Dame is going to have a chance in the showdown that looms with Stanford in a few weeks, the team is going to need to be well rested. Kelly trusting in Adams with the ball in his hands allows him to rest Prosise and give him time to recover from injury. Notre Dame’s rushing attack has paced the offense all season long, and it seems that the combo of Prosise’s speed and Adams’ physicality will continue to do so now that another weapon has appeared in Adams. Combine this with one of the nation’s top receiving threats in Will Fuller, and the Irish have a pretty scary offense heading into the season’s final stretch – but will it be enough to propel them into the playoff? Their number five ranking suggests so, but they cannot afford to slip up in either of the next two games, both of which they will be heavy favorites. If they can make it through the next two, a huge game awaits in Palo Alto, California.