Irish in good hands with C.J. Prosise in the backfield

C.J. Prosise ran for 98 yards on 20 carries in his first and only game at running back. Jon Durr/Getty Images

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- His high school coach described the dunk as “The Jordan,” which, upon viewing, may not be hyperbole. The same football coach remembered the athlete initially as a basketball player, invoking the name Dwyane Wade to characterize his slashing, all-fours mentality on the hardwood.

Four-plus years later, and C.J. Prosise’s athletic exploits have come all across the gridiron for Notre Dame, where he has played three positions in four years while also contributing on special teams. The Petersburg, Virginia native will make his first start at running back Saturday at Virginia -- after all of five months’ worth of experience in the backfield. Prosise finished just shy of the century mark in his lone game there, tallying 98 yards on 20 carries last weekend in relief of the injured Tarean Folston.

But his path to this moment was in no small way borne out of improvisation on a sleepy summer day in 2011, when Prosise was lending his coach a hand.

“We were running a sports camp and had huge thunderstorms coming in, so I had 160 little boys and nothing to do,” said Clint Alexander, Woodberry Forest’s football coach. “I said, ‘Hey, let’s have a dunk contest.’”

The clinching dunk -- immortalized on YouTube (around the 2:30 mark) -- featured the left-handed Prosise picking up steam from the other side of the court as he takes flight barely a foot inside the free-throw line, before cocking the ball back and slamming it with authority.

Cue 100-plus kids storming Prosise on the baseline. And cue a few raised eyebrows in the Irish football offices some 600-plus miles away.

“We sent that to Notre Dame because honestly they felt like, we’re not sure if he’s athletic enough,” Alexander said. “I said, ‘Well, why don’t you look at this?’ And that kind of sold them.”

As Irish coach Brian Kelly recalled this week, “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. He's just that good of an athlete.’”

Previous defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, Alexander said, was in love with Prosise as a safety. But when Kelly visited, Alexander recalled, the head coach said Prosise could be an elite receiver.

Prosise, now a 6-foot-0.5-inch, 220-pounder, had played both positions at Woodberry Forest, where he arrived as a basketball player and ran track, but quickly found himself under the tutelage of eventual Stanford All-American Ed Reynolds at safety. He never played running back though, which is his position now after a spring switch to combat depth issues -- and his starting position for the season after the losses of Greg Bryant (academics) and Folston (ACL tear).

His breakout campaign at receiver last year -- his second there, after redshirting at safety in 2012 -- underscored his big-play capability, as he tallied four plays of 50-plus yards, and 11 plays of 20-plus yards. (He also won special teams MVP honors.) Prosise's ability to switch positions, he said, can be attributed to his well-rounded athletic background.

“I think it just made me a better athlete overall, just playing these different sports and different types of movements and different types of shapes,” Prosise said, “because football shape is different shape than basketball shape, and that’s a lot different than track shape.”

Asked if Prosise could play even quarterback, Irish signal-caller Malik Zaire quipped, “You never know. C.J. can do it all.”

Prosise said Saturday’s opponent, Virginia, was his first offer. With prep teammates Greer Martini and Doug Randolph having followed Prosise to Notre Dame, Alexander will rush to Charlottesville on Saturday morning from Woodberry Forest’s Friday night game in Southern Pines, North Carolina, which is four hours away. Alexander said Woodberry Forest is busing students from campus for the 40-mile trip to Scott Stadium to see the Irish-Hoos tilt, which also features alum Lester Coleman as UVA’s reserve punter.

The prepsters may not recognize how Prosise takes the first handoff for Notre Dame. But odds are some of them have seen his athletic exploits in one forum or another anyway.

“He was doing a lot of things on tape, and you could say that category of putting a guy in the ‘athlete’ category is something that would fit, and then he finds out or the ability finds out where he's going to play,” Virginia coach Mike London said. “And obviously C.J. has put himself in a position to be a very, very good running back for them.”