NOTRE DAME — In the early 2000s, running backs Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber created a tandem known as “Thunder and Lightning” in the New York Giants backfield.
The nickname, which was a nod to Dayne’s power and Barber’s speed, became a popular description during the recruitment of blue-chip tailbacks Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston after both committed to Notre Dame in Feburary.
Though paying their freshmen dues at the bottom of a loaded tailback depth chart, Bryant and Folston look to be the future faces of Notre Dame’s running game, potentially the best tandem the Irish have ever had play the position.
Now with Bryant sidelined for the season with a knee injury, the brewing storm is down a man. Folston has shown flashes of his own potential brilliance, breaking tackles for tough yards up the middle against Michigan State and slipping away on a 36-yard sprint against Oklahoma.
“Folston is very smooth,” head coach Brian Kelly said in September. “Just looks like everything he does is very smooth. Gets out of his breaks very, very well. Puts his foot in the ground and can accelerate. Catches the ball extremely well.”
Is he the lightning? Is he the thunder? How about both? “Call it what you want,” Folston said. “I can be thunder, I can be lightning. (Bryant) can be thunder, he can be lightning.”
Folston doesn’t bother with the labeling. He didn’t even put much stake in being dubbed a four-star running back out of Cocoa (Fla.) High School. He didn’t think Notre Dame owed him and Bryant playing time despite their high-profile recruitment.
“One thing that I always kept in mind coming out of high school is that stars didn’t really mean anything to me,” he said. “It’s about how I preform and how I project myself as a person.”
Like most elite players in the south, Folston was recruited heavily by Southeastern Conference schools. Unlike most elite players in the south, Folston didn’t bite at offers from Auburn, Florida and South Carolina. The SEC, he said, “is just a name. I go to schools that can benefit me as a young man.”
Despite joining a Notre Dame team that already had George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel and Amir Carlisle in line ahead of him, Folston feels like he made right choice in school.
“Coming in, I had a couple great running backs in front of me,” Folston said. “It’s not about coming in right away and playing. Every freshman wants to play right away. You have to come in and prepare yourself for the college football life. It’s a whole different lifestyle.”
That lifestyle hit Folston hard in the first few weeks of preseason camp, when he struggled to execute plays from the playbook onto the practice field.
“I feel like I could write up plays, but when I got in, everything started moving fast,” he said. “It was crazy. I started to pick it up and everything started to slow down.”
Folston’s opening performance in Week 1 against Temple wasn’t anything for the highlight reel — he finished with five carries for 14 yards in garbage time — but he said getting that first shred of game experience helped slow the game down for him.
The game must continue to get more comfortable for Folston as Notre Dame uses its bye week to rest some minor injuries and fine-tune some of the players it will need in the second half of the season.
Folston may have a modest 11 carries for 69 yards, but expect to see more of him in the next six games. Kelly included Folston in a mix with receiver DaVaris Daniels, receiver Will Fuller, offensive lineman Steve Elmer and center Nick Martin as up-and-comers who will get more attention during the bye week.
“We want to get those guys some work this week,” Kelly said. “Because we are going to have to count on them in the second half of the season.”