When you’re known for the play you didn’t make, it generally means you didn’t make much of a positive impact.
C.J. Prosise, who converted from safety as a freshman in 2012 to a slot receiver in 2013, caught seven passes for 72 yards in his first go-round on offense. It may not seem like much, but it was progress from his rookie season when he preserved a year of eligibility before moving to Z receiver in the spring.
It was the wrong route that he ran in the fourth quarter of the regular-season finale, so acknowledged by Brian Kelly after Notre Dame’s 27-20 loss to Stanford, which led to the first of two Tommy Rees interceptions.
Prosise would go on to make a career-high two catches for 25 yards in the Pinstripe Bowl. But it wasn’t until one week ago - in the Blue-Gold Game - that Prosise resurfaced in eye-opening fashion.
Late in the first quarter, Prosise took a pass from Malik Zaire at the defense’s 39-yard line. As safety Austin Collinsworth converged, Prosise spun off the reception and then kicked in the afterburners. He ran away from Collinsworth and the other safety, Eilar Hardy, to complete the 39-yard score.
While some pointed to Collinsworth’s lack of quickness from the safety position, Kelly gave the nod to the 6-foot-0 ½, 220-pound junior-to-be from the Woodberry Forest School in Virginia. The big play came just in time.
“C.J. Prosise was not, in my opinion, having great practices (but) today, he showed,” Kelly said. “He flashed today.”
Prosise also caught a 22-yard pass from Zaire on the first snap of the day to give him a two-catch, 61-yard afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium. It could be the start of something big for Prosise, who appears to have settled into a Z-receiver tandem with senior-to-be Amir Carlisle.
“I felt like last year I learned how to play the game and how your intensity has to be,” said Prosise the day before the Blue-Gold Game. “I went out there and made a couple of plays, but I feel like this year there will be a lot more made.”
Prosise offers a rare combination of size and speed. Once 214-pound running back-turned-slot-receiver Will Mahone went down with a broken ankle early in spring drills, Prosise had far and away the greatest combination of size and quickness among the receivers. No other wideout on the spring practice field was within 15 pounds of Prosise.
“I’m definitely starting to understand what I’ve got and I’m starting to use it,” Prosise said. “I’m starting to be more physical out there. I’m still getting used to what I’ve got.”
What the Irish now have at Z receiver - contrary to the first four years under Kelly at Notre Dame - is a capable one-two punch with Prosise and Carlisle. Carlisle, who struggled catching the football out of the backfield in ’13, appears to have made a successful transition from running back. In fact, the two Z receivers were the only ones to score in the Blue-Gold Game via the passing game.
“We’re kind of going through it together,” said Prosise of establishing a tandem with Carlisle at Z. “We ask each other questions. We help each other out.”
Offensive coordinator/receivers coach Mike Denbrock has seen Prosise progress since the transition to Z last spring.
“He’s still continuing to grow and understanding the nuances that lead to the consistency that we need from that (Z) spot,” Denbrock said. “No. 1, his route running has gotten better. Consistency catching the football has gotten better.
“The physical traits obviously are off the charts from a strength standpoint and an athletic standpoint. There’s a pretty good competition going on there (with Carlisle).”
The first hurdle Prosise faced upon making the transition from defense to offense was the lack of a comfort zone. He was a first-team Virginia all-state honoree in 2010 and 2011 at safety. The Charlottesville Daily Progress chose him as the Central Virginia defensive player of the year in 2011.
“I’d been playing safety throughout high school,” Prosise said. “But once I got to the offensive side and started making some plays, I felt I was where I needed to be.”
Prosise is still learning how to use the physicality he developed on defense to his advantage on offense.
“Blocking-wise, you’ve got to block the Sam, a guy like Jaylon Smith, who’s 235 pounds,” Prosise said. “You also have to worry about getting off re-routes. That was the hardest thing about the position. The best part of the position is you can see the field a lot easier lining up inside.”
Prosise should be ready to make a more consistent contribution at Z receiver in 2014.
“Downfield, match-ups are in my favor, especially when we get in scramble drills,” Prosise said. “I feel like I can be a big part of this offense. I feel like I can make plays in this offense.”
Plays, perhaps, that will be a bit more memorable than the ones Prosise didn’t make in 2013.