While Notre Dame's defense seems to be losing players at an unsustainable pace, the offense had a potential star emerge during Saturday's 38-34 victory over Navy. Freshman running back Tarean Folston broke loose for 140 yards on 18 carries, scoring the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter after leading the offense in the second half.
As the Irish were forced to trade scores with Navy's option attack, head coach Brian Kelly turned the game over to the 5'9", 207-pound freshman who dazzled as the afternoon wore on, carrying 15 times in the game's final 30 minutes for 112 yards. After seeing veterans George Atkinson, Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel get their chances to take charge of the position, it was the Cocoa, Fla., native who seized control of the depth chart with the first 100-yard game by a freshman back since Robert Hughes in 2007.
"We knew it was just a matter of time before he broke loose and really showed what he’s capable of doing," senior receiver TJ Jones told BlueandGold. "Now he’s just set the bar for himself, and we’re going to expect that from him every time."
Many Irish fans expected a freshman running back to break loose this season. They just thought it'd be fellow Floridian Greg Bryant, a consensus 5-star recruit. But the signs of Folston emerging were there even before the freshman led the team in carries against Air Force. He'd been one of the Irish's top running back targets since their early recruiting-evaluation period.
Let's get to know Folston a little bit better.
While the focus had been on Greg Bryant and his 5-star rating, Folston wasn't all that far behind. Here's a breakdown of how the major recruiting services ranked Folston in their final evaluations.
Rivals: 4-Star, No. 119 overall, No. 14 running back.
247: 4-Star, No. 122 overall, No. 9 running back.
ESPN: 4-Star, No. 66 overall, No. 6 athlete
Take note of the "athlete" tag by ESPN. Here's how Notre Dame running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Tony Alford described Folston in February right before Signing Day.
"He's a guy on his high school team that did everything. He played safety, he played corner, he played quarterback," Alford said. "He's a very skilled athlete. A very explosive athlete. He's got great pedigree."
While Folston had offers from plenty of elite schools, his three official visits tell you the type of offenses that truly coveted Folston. The running back trekked to Eugene in November to meet with Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich. He listened to a late pitch from Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. But he ultimately decided on Notre Dame, where he visited in mid-October and committed during the Under Armour All-American Bowl.
In the talent-rich state of Florida, Notre Dame signed the first-team running back on the 4A All-State team (Folston) as well as the 2A team (Bryant).
ELITE FAMILY BLOODLINES
Folston's father James was drafted in the second round of the 1994 NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders. He played eight seasons in the NFL between Oakland and Arizona after leaving Louisiana-Monroe as the school's all-time sack leader.
Notre Dame is becoming a haven for children of former professional athletes. While the Golic brothers have just graduated, the current roster is stacked with players whose fathers played sports professionally. George and Josh Atkinson, Austin Collinsworth, DaVaris Daniels, Conor Hanratty, Mike Heuerman, Torii Hunter Jr., TJ Jones and Corey Robinson. That type of connection has been important in Irish recruiting, with ex-athletes understanding the virtues that come with the academic and athletic mix Notre Dame provides.
Tarean isn't the only Folston that had college recruiters taking interest. His younger brother James is being recruited by programs as a linebacker and his sister Jazzmine is a freshman sprinter at TCU.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
There's no end in sight for the logjam at running back for the Irish. Nobody at the position is set to graduate, and next year Bryant will join the fight for playing time, using a redshirt this season after a knee injury flared up a few games into the fall.
But a look back historically at some performances by other freshman backs at Notre Dame give you a hint that Folston's time in South Bend could be very productive.
Robert Hughes' 100-yard game came in the finale of a three-win season against a Stanford team that had bottomed out the year before and won four games during Jim Harbaugh's first season. Before that it was Darius Walker who eclipsed the century mark, needing 31 carries to run for 115 yards in a 28-20 victory over Michigan in 2004. Folston's day was the best since young Julius Jones, who ran for 146 yards against Navy in 1999. Folston came up just eight yards shy of Jerome Heavens' freshman rushing record of 148 yards set in 1975.
With three games to go in the regular season, Folston looks to have moved to the front of the depth chart after being slowed down earlier in the year with a variety of issues. In his Sunday teleconference with reporters, Kelly revealed that Folston had battled a severe calf strain during training camp, then tweaked a hip flexor as well. On Folston's breakout run against Oklahoma, he strained his hamstring. But finally healthy, the freshman is emerging just in time for a late-season push.
"He's trying to take reps away from George Atkinson, who has been in the program for three years; Amir Carlisle, who is a kid who played at USC as a freshman, transferred in with very good ball skills; and Cam McDaniel, who has been a tough, physical runner for us," Kelly said of Folston earlier this week. "You have to be really good to take reps away from each one of those guys. But he's done that."
"Everybody’s time comes," Folston told BlueandGold. "And I feel like my time came today."
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.