The struggles of the Notre Dame offense were at times exaggerated in 2016. The Irish offense, for all of the criticism it received, still averaged 30.9 points a game in 2016 – good enough for the third most of the Kelly Era. That said, this was an offense that could have scored more points than any of the Kelly Era. For it to reach that level in 2017, one thing Notre Dame’s new offensive brain trust must do is unleash Dexter Williams.
When Dexter Williams touches the football, good things tend to happen. Williams started the 2016 season on a tear. In the first five games, Williams scored three touchdowns despite carrying the ball just 21 times. That’s one touchdown every seven carries for those who aren’t good with math. That’s pretty damn good.
Williams’s playmaking ability was highlighted the most by his Tecmo Bowl style touchdown run versus Syracuse. It was’t quite full Bo Jackson, but it was pretty darn close.
That run game occurred October 1. Over the final seven games of the season Williams recorded just 18 total carries despite the Irish offense being in need of a spark numerous times. If Williams didn’t bust a big play within the first few precious carries he received, he wasn’t called on again by Notre Dame’s now defunct three headed offensive coaching monster.
Notre Dame barely utilized Williams in the passing game as well. The rising junior has just four career receptions – all in 2016 – for a total of 16 yards. That is not nearly enough opportunities for a dynamic athletic like Williams. His run against Syracuse alone shows just ho dangerous the Florida native can be once he is open space.
Finding A Role for Dexter Williams in 2017
Notre Dame will have almost an entirely new offensive staff in 2017 with incoming offensive coordinator Chip Long (still not officially announced) and then likely new quarterbacks and wide receivers coaches. Kelly could very well end up being the QB coach, however. Still, there will be a lot of new ideas in the offensive coaching room. Those new voices along with Brian Kelly, who is for better or worse the CEO of the offense, have to find a way to get Williams more involved in the offense.
Josh Adams will be the top back and could have a monster year if the staff allows him to. Adams nearly eclipsed 1,000 yards as a sophomore despite getting just 158 carries. Adams carried the ball more than 15 times in just two games in 2016 even though he averaged 5.8 yards per carry on the season and 6.4 for his career. That’s an argument for another day though. The point here is that the staff needs to find a role for Williams that compliments Adams.
Dexter Williams touched the ball 10 times on offense in just one game in 2016 – Syracuse. Outside of the that contest, he had 8 touches vs. Nevada, six vs. NC State, five vs. Miami, and five vs. Duke. In no other game did Williams touch the ball five times or more.
In 2017, the list of games in which Williams touches the ball less than five times should be non-existent. Williams should touch the ball on offense at least 10 times a game next fall. Notre Dame’s staff needs to be creative in how they get him the ball as well. The touches Williams get shouldn’t just be the standard handoffs. Get the kid the ball in space and let run through and around defenders like he did against Syracuse.
A Potentially Dynamic Duo
Notre Dame has the ability to have the best combination of running backs they’ve had under Brian Kelly in 2017 if they want to. The only two running back duos that compare are Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray in 2011 and Wood and Theo Riddick in 2012. Adams and Williams have the ability to be the best of that group if Notre Dame commits to utilizing them. This isn’t another “run the football” rant though. I’m not holding my breath that Brian Kelly will all of sudden discover a commitment to running the ball. Adams and Williams, however, can impact the game running and receiving.
Next year’s running back duo compares favorably to the Gray-Wood combination. Gray was the bigger back with top end speed while Wood was the shifty runner who needed the ball in space. Had Gray not gone down with an injury on senior day that year, both backs could have eclipsed 1,000 yards. I don’t expect Williams and Adams to both top 1,000 yards on the ground in 2017, but if Kelly and his new staff use Williams properly next fall, both should reach the end-zone 10 times a piece.
All of this, however, is dependent on Kelly using both backs and not chucking the ball all over the field again next year. With a first year starting quarterback, he shouldn’t and we have actually seen Kelly practice restraint in play-calling with first year starters before (2012, 2015). If history repeats itself in 2017, Dexter Williams will have more than 40 carries before mid-terms.