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The impossible task of bringing Josh Adams down

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Notre Dame vs. Miami rekindles an old rivalry (1:01)

The Fighting Irish visit the Hurricanes on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC to continue a historic, sometimes bitter, college football rivalry. (1:01)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Apryll Adams likes to say her youngest child received an extra dose of blessings, starting at birth.

Apryll planned to have three kids. First came Jonathan, and then Porscha. Apryll became pregnant again, with a boy she would call Aaron. The family would be complete. But just five months into the pregnancy, she went into labor. Aaron did not survive.

"If Aaron was here, Joshua wouldn't be here," Apryll told ESPN.com. "Three was my limit. The blessing on Joshua is God's way of saying he got a double portion, for the son that I lost, which makes my heart happy."

Josh Adams has warmed his mother's heart ever since. They are similarly determined, driven and defiant -- "in a good way," Apryll says with a laugh. She chased her goals, escaping the projects of North Philadelphia for a college education, a stable job and a family. He chased his goals, too, excelling in sports and school, and overcoming a major injury, to reach one of college football's biggest stages at Notre Dame.

These days, everyone is chasing Josh, and no one's catching him. Thanks in part to his long runs -- Adams leads the FBS with seven rushes of 60 yards or longer -- he has become Notre Dame's first Heisman Trophy candidate since Manti Te'o, the 2012 Heisman runner-up.

Adams is a reluctant star, deflecting praise to his teammates, who volley it right back to him. But the hype is real.

He averages 8.7 yards per rush for a run-centric Notre Dame offense that includes five players with more than 30 carries this season. The man dubbed "Dickerson" by Irish defensive backs coach Todd Lyght -- a comparison to Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson -- supplies highlights in bunches, like a 77-yard scoring run against NC State when he was clocked at 22.37 mph. Adams also shows strength and power, recording 852 of his 1,191 yards after contact for the third-ranked Irish, who visit No. 7 Miami on Saturday (ABC and ESPN App, 8 p.m. ET).

"He can run you over, he can run away from you, he can make you miss, or he can run through you," Notre Dame running backs coach Autry Denson said. "Josh is as complete as you can get."

And not just on the field.

'Go Josh, go Josh, go Josh'

Looking at Adams today -- 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds with long, sculpted arms -- it's hard to imagine he weighed only 4 pounds, 12 ounces at birth. He arrived Oct. 29, 1996, more than six weeks premature, even though Apryll had been put on bed rest to prevent another early delivery.

At two months, Josh underwent surgery to repair a double hernia. He needed asthma treatments through kindergarten, and still used an inhaler for sports through junior high.

"I knew whatever he did, it was going to be special," Apryll said. "He was my miracle baby, because he survived so much."

Born in the West Oak Lane neighborhood of North Philly, Josh moved to Warrington, a suburb, at 4. He grew up in Warrington but considers both places his hometowns. (After touchdown runs, Adams makes a 2-1-5 gesture, acknowledging the area code used in both Philadelphia and Warrington.)

His parents split when he was young, but he credits both with shaping his values. Apryll does compliance for the IRS, where she has worked for 21 years. Josh's father, Jonathan, recently retired after a long career with United Parcel Service.

"My parents are very much alike," Josh said. "When they get their mind set on one thing, they really attack. We're pretty similar."

As a kid, he attacked sports, playing outside even when it snowed or after the streetlights went out. His dad introduced him to football, and Josh, who was big for his age, started out playing offensive line. After the first set of sprints during his first middle school practice, the coaches saw where he truly belonged.

"He'd probably say he didn't play a lot because he had 300 yards by halftime and we were blowing people out," said Mike Strayline, who coached Adams in middle school. "Every time he touched the ball, it was something special."

Adams always had speed, but he came to Central Bucks South High School lanky and unsure of how to use his skills. Eventually, he filled out and figured things out. Even then, Adams displayed great vision, understanding the way runs develop and seeing beyond the line to the second level, rather than defaulting to perimeter runs because of his quickness. "See green and get to the green," Central Bucks South coach Tom Hetrick said.

Hetrick remembers being on the headset when Adams broke off big runs. Hetrick would hear offensive coordinator Bart Szarko, sitting in the coaches' booth with a better field view, start chanting: Go Josh, go Josh, go Josh.

"When you hear those words, you know he's off and he's not going to get caught," Hetrick said. "When I hear 'Go Josh,' it always brings back the warm and fuzzies. I'll sit there now watching [Notre Dame] on TV with my boys, and he'll take off and I'll say, 'Go Josh, go Josh, go Josh.'"

'What sets Josh apart is who he is'

Apryll Adams will talk to her son about being in the spotlight. It's her responsibility. But her message will be one Josh heard throughout his life: Stay grounded. Never forget where you come from. God brought you here and can take you away.

"People are who they are," Apryll said. "Money and fame magnifies that, but they are who they are. What's in Josh will come out and hopefully it will be good, because that's what's in him."

The goodness in Josh Adams makes those in his life -- teammates, coaches, friends, teachers, family members -- pull harder for him to succeed. Just ask the guys actually doing the pulling on the football field.

"He's so talented, he's got the size, he's got the speed, but what sets Josh apart is who he is," said Notre Dame offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, who grew up near Adams. "He's as good of a person as you can come around in this game."

Added guard Quenton Nelson: "Josh is the most humble guy I've ever been around. Doesn't really say much in the locker room, but he's got an energy to him that people really rally behind."

Physical therapist Frank Angiolillo saw it when Adams began to rehab a major knee injury. The clinic where Angiolillo works isn't strictly for sports medicine, so it draws all sorts of patients. Adams stuck out but never isolated himself, offering encouraging words to other patients and politely answering questions about his football career.

"Incredibly respectful of others," Angiolillo said. "Every day, he called me, 'Sir.' I used to say, 'Josh, you can call me Frank.' He said, 'Yes, sir, I'll call you Frank.' He can do things athletically that can boggle the mind, but he's an even nicer person."

Denson saw it the first time he met Adams, who was visiting from Warrington the day before Notre Dame's spring game in 2015. The coach, who had returned to his alma mater that February, picked up Adams at a hotel and started driving him to Notre Dame's football building.

En route, Denson's wife called with an errand. So Adams joined Denson and Denson's sons, Autry and Elijah, as they stopped at the grocery store.

"We were in the car, playing gospel and hip-hop music, just having fun," Denson said. "People probably thought he was another one of my sons. From day one, when I picked him up at that hotel, he jumped in and went with the flow.

"We've been rolling ever since."

'I made up my mind to attack this thing'

It's called the "unhappy triad" in the sports medicine world: a torn ACL, a torn meniscus and a torn MCL. Adams narrowly avoided the triad, tearing the first two ligaments and severely spraining the third in a game near the end of his junior year of high school.

Angiolillo, who had run track at Saint Joseph's University, knew Adams was a promising sprinter and an honors student. He also knew Adams' injury had a 30 to 35 percent rate to reoccur. So he suggested to Josh and Apryll that if Josh focused on track, the Ivy League schools would fight over him.

"Let's clear this up," Apryll shot back. "He's going to be scoring touchdowns for Stanford, Notre Dame or Penn State. You got it?"

"She set me straight right away," Angiolillo said.

For about four months after surgery, Adams went through rehab sessions of 90 minutes to two hours, always asking Angiolillo what more he could do. Adams' brother or sister would pick him up, waiting patiently for him to finish.

"I looked back at my life and how hard everybody in my family worked," Adams said. "I wanted to do the same thing. Through a lot of prayer and discussions with my mom and dad, I made my mind up to attack this thing with everything that I had."

His first game back as a senior was against rival Central Bucks West. On the first play, he was held to a short gain. "Overrated" chants began in the stands. Adams took the next handoff, juked two or three defenders and ran 81 yards to the end zone. Central Bucks South won 41-14 and Adams finished with 232 yards on 15 carries. He didn't even play in the second half.

Some colleges had backed off after the injury. Notre Dame didn't. Tony Alford, then the team's running backs coach, knew if Adams' knee responded, he brought a unique combination of elite straight-line speed and power to get through debris. There was something else, too.

"You could look in his eyes and see he's a guy who will bite," said Alford, now at Ohio State. "He's not out there screaming and hollering, jumping up and down and a look-at-me type of guy, but his demeanor was very serious and businesslike and goal-oriented. Even as a young high school guy, he was a man's man."

'He's a competitor's competitor'

When Notre Dame's running backs reviewed film of the team's 49-14 win over USC, Adams remained quiet as his highlights appeared on screen. There was the 84-yard touchdown through the heart of the Trojans' defense that sent the stadium into a frenzy. There was a 14-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter that made Adams the first Notre Dame player to record three rushing touchdowns against USC since Reggie Brooks in 1992.

Then, Denson showed a Brandon Wimbush run where Adams cut-blocked two USC defenders.

"You would have thought he won the lottery," Denson said. "For three weeks, that's what we focused on in practice, executing the perfect cut block. He wants to be the best, but he understands what it means to be the best, the process behind what it takes."

Denson notes Adams' unique gifts as a ball carrier. Tall backs rarely run with such speed and fluidity. Adams' long-striding style drew the Dickerson comparison from Lyght, a former NFL cornerback. Adams has great hips and can beat defenses in different ways.

But it's the other stuff -- a willingness to block and understand protections, and to improve route running -- that makes Adams unique. Denson knew Adams could handle playing as a freshman, when he averaged 7.1 yards per carry as C.J. Prosise's backup. He endears himself to teammates by finishing every run in practice the way he would in a game.

"He's a competitor's competitor," Denson said. "He's a gentleman off the field, but Josh is a beast. He wants to win, and he's mature enough to understand the process that goes into winning. It's so easy to root for Josh because it's not made up, it's not manufactured."

Denson, who played four seasons in the NFL, thinks Adams will have a long pro career -- ESPN's Mel Kiper ranks Adams sixth among eligible running backs for the 2018 draft -- and will use the platform to impact others. Despite a busy fall schedule at Notre Dame, Adams is mentoring a 10-year-old boy in foster care. Adams missed the initial College Football Playoff rankings show because he and the boy were hanging out and playing cards.

Apryll says she thinks Josh's path is ordained, because "it's not supposed to happen." She has told Josh about Aaron, but she hasn't said much about how Aaron's death shapes how she views Josh's life.

"I think God has given Joshua a double portion," she said, "to not make up for the loss, but to carry on a destiny that was cut short. God allowed him to go in a good way, to mature and to blossom into what we see today.

"And he's not done."