Autry Denson: Terrific Coach, Underrated Recruiter

9 Nov 1996: Autry Denson of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs with the football during a game against the Boston College Eagles at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Notre Dame won the game 48-21. Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart /Allsport
9 Nov 1996: Autry Denson of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs with the football during a game against the Boston College Eagles at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Notre Dame won the game 48-21. Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart /Allsport /

Since taking over as the Notre Dame running backs coach in 2015, Autry Denson has received his fair share of criticism. I’m here to tell you that should have never been the case.

Autry Denson has been under the microscope of Irish fans since stepping foot on campus. Many liked the hire because of the obvious connections, but others felt he didn’t have the experience. He was the running backs coach at Miami (OH) in 2014 and had a quick stint at South Florida before Notre Dame quickly hired him away in 2015.

Questions about recruiting have been the main concern as Notre Dame has avoided landing the big fish since his tenure began. However, talent and production has been there throughout his four years.

Let’s take a look into the Notre Dame coaching career of Autry Denson to settle the score.


In his first recruiting class (2016), Denson landed two South Florida running backs in IMG Academy four-star Tony Jones Jr. and Fort Lauderdale native three-star Deon McIntosh. He was also the primary recruiter for Troy Pride Jr., Jonathan Jones and Devin Studstill and helped assist with three additional Florida recruits.

In 2017, Denson landed one running back in four-star CJ Holmes out of Connecticut, while also playing a key role in the recruitment of Michael Young, Jonathon MacCollister and Drew White.

In the most recent freshman class, Denson held a commitment from in-state product Markese Stepp for the majority of his recruitment and landed North Carolina running back Jahmir Smith early on as well. After the departure of Stepp, Notre Dame was scrambling for a second back and Denson did a tremendous job finding C’Bo Flemister late in the process to finish off the position. As in past classes, he was also instrumental in landing several other recruits — Kevin Austin being the most noteworthy.

Regarding the current recruiting class, Kyren Williams out of Missouri is the lone running back committed and he is a very good one at that.

So to rehash — Denson has landed two 4-star running backs in four years and another four 3-stars. Although, Williams has a good chance to make that three four-stars come signing day. He has also played a huge role for the Irish in recruiting the South and particularly Florida. He’s certainly not the best recruiter on the Notre Dame staff, but definitely not a poor one either.

Which brings us to our next section…

On-Field Production 

This is really where Denson has shined as a coach. It wouldn’t be fair to judge a coach simply off recruiting and star rankings. What he does with those recruits and with the players he has on the field is the best indicator for success.

In year one, he took a converted safety/wide receiver (C.J. Prosise) and turned him into a 3rd round NFL draft pick at running back. Prosise would finish the season with 1,029 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. The backup was then freshman running back, Josh Adams. He would add another 838 yards on the ground and 6 scores. Needless to say, a tremendous first year of coaching and development on the part of Denson.

Year two was a tad less desirable, but overall a solid one on the ground. The Notre Dame football wasn’t good as a whole, but that didn’t stop Josh Adams from producing as the workhorse back. Although he didn’t top the 1,000-yard rushing mark, he was awfully close while finishing with 5.9 yards per rush and 5 touchdowns. Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams also did a good job when called upon, rushing for 534 and 5 scores combined.

Last season is really when the running game started to take over as the strength of the football team. Josh Adams was now in year three and the complimentary pieces were arguably just as talented. Regardless, Adams was the workhorse running for over 1400 yards and 9 touchdowns. At one point, he was even in the Heisman discussion with his #33Trucking campaign in full effect. Deon McIntosh, Tony Jones Jr. and Dexter Williams would all contribute throughout the season and add another 960 yards and 12 scores between the three of them.

Off-Field Distractions 

This past offseason was really when the Notre Dame fans really started to harp on Denson. Adams was off the NFL and Deon McIntosh and CJ Holmes were both dismissed from the football program. That left the Irish with Dexter Williams, who was set to serve his own 4-game suspension, Tony Jones Jr., and the two freshman three-star running backs. Not the most ideal situation to be in for Denson.

Some fans blamed Denson for not keeping better track of his players. Some said Denson’s recruiting techniques were too faith driven. Some said Notre Dame should simply stop recruiting Florida athletes.

In order to help supplement the losses of three talented backs, Notre Dame made two position changes — both to red-shirt freshman. Jafar Armstrong (WR) and Avery Davis (QB) were now listed as running backs on the depth chart.

Current State of the Position 

After a tumultuous off-season, fans and probably even coaches didn’t know what to make of the run game. The highest rated running back recruit on the team was suspended for the first four games. Tony Jones Jr. was unproven as a workhorse. Armstrong and Davis were about to play their first snaps as running backs. And obviously, there’s always an unknown with freshman athletes.

Somewhat surprisingly, the coaches chose to roll with Armstrong as the starter game one. Fans had heard positive reports, and when he was recruited, many felt running back would be his best position down the line. That said, there was really no video evidence outside of the Blue & Gold game.

After four weeks, fans couldn’t have been more pleased. The duo of Armstrong and Jones was terrific, and the return of Williams was just around the corner.

Unfortunately, we’ve yet to see the three-headed monster all together due to a knee infection to Armstrong, but that should change this weekend against Navy. Williams has picked up where Armstrong left off and then some, and overall on the season, the running game has once again been a force under Denson’s teaching. The trio currently has 959 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns while averaging 6.0 yards per carry.

Oh, and this is all happening with the running backs currently riding a three-year streak without losing a fumble. The last lost fumble by a Notre Dame running back was during the Fenway Park game against Boston College in 2015 — Autry Denson’s first year with the program.

Sleep on that while trashing the former Notre Dame star.

3 Bold Predictions vs. Navy. dark. Next

Maybe he isn’t the best recruiter. Maybe he isn’t the best judge of character for high school athletes. However, in four years, he has turned two former wide receivers into tremendous running backs, led a Heisman campaign and lost one fumble out of his position group.

What more would you like your running backs coach to do?