After a year in which the Notre Dame running game wasn’t necessarily a prominent feature of the offense, the 2017 edition of the Irish figures to rectify that situation. The arrival of new offensive coordinator Chip Long serves as the basis for that statement, which could make Dexter Williams a key aspect of this year’s squad.
The 5-11, 210-pound Williams was considered a four-star recruit when he came out of Winter Garden West Orange High School in Florida. He had actually spent the bulk of his high school career at Orlando Olympia High School, but decided to transfer for his final year in order to reunite with his former coach.
That served as big news at the time because of the level of major schools that were pursuing Williams. While Notre Dame eventually took home the prize, they had to battle schools like Ohio State, Miami and USC when getting his name on the letter-of-intent. In fact, Williams had previously committed to Miami before changing his mind prior to the actual signing.
The arrival of Williams in South Bend was met with the hope that he’d be able to exploit his ample athleticism that’s exemplified by his explosive running style. The ability to accelerate quickly brought visions of him racking up big runs and making the end zone his second home.
However, the realities of major college football limited Williams to just six games during his freshman season in 2015, when he rushed for just 81 yards on 21 carries and only scored once. Things barely improved last year, when he rushed for 200 yards on 39 carries, collecting three touchdowns. One of those scoring runs came on a 59-yard scamper in the win over Syracuse.
Among all returning Irish players, Williams may have had the best reason for saying goodbye to 2016. The miserable 4-8 record was just one of the reasons, with other off-the-field issues also factoring into the picture. Chief among them was the death of a close friend and the continuing battle that his mother has waged with the debilitating illness known as myasthenia gravis over the past decade.
Reason for Optimism
While Williams hasn’t put up any real numbers, he also hasn’t fallen victim to injuries. That usually something that can take a toll on any player, especially a running back, over a span of four years. With a pair of fresh legs to provide depth behind Josh Adams, Notre Dame may be able to provide a strong one-two punch at tailback.
The aforementioned misery of 2016 for Williams also included an arrest for marijuana possession, a bust that also included five other members of the Irish. Yet despite feeling disappointment, the coaching staff continued to push the then-sophomore to excel.
That backing wasn’t lost on Williams, who spoke about how the incident caused him to realize how any future incidents might end his Notre Dame career. That dose of maturity figures to translate into a deeper focus in the year ahead.
Evidence of that came during the annual Blue-Gold Game in April, when he collected 132 all-purpose yards and scored once. A total of 96 of those yards came on the ground, including a 38-yard scamper in the first quarter.
Putting a great deal of weight on what was an exhibition game is a risky proposition, but Williams’ performance offered at least a peek into what might be possible during the upcoming campaign. The third-year player will be looking to take advantage of what should be an experienced Irish offensive line.
Reason for Doubt
As much potential as Williams brings to the field, the amount of touches he gets over the course of the 2017 season still figures to be fairly limited. That’s not because of a lack of talent, but simply factors in the presence of the player standing in his way: Josh Adams.
Using Williams to give Adams the occasional breather will be an asset when it comes to depth, yet doesn’t figure to suddenly turn the junior into a 1,000-yard rusher. With just 60 carries over his first two years, there’s still no guarantee that the skills that brought him to the Golden Dome will deliver the breakthrough season everyone wants to see.
Finally, the pessimistic Irish fan will point out that even though Williams averaged over five yards per carry in 2016, removing that single run against Syracuse lowers that average to under four yards per touch. Until Williams’ body of work expands far beyond his 39 carries from last year, the enthusiasm over his abilities figures to be tempered with caution.
The allure of Notre Dame can still bring in the talent, which means that even as Williams seeks to find a way to carry the ball more, he has to be aware of potential competitors for his role. Tony Jones Jr. is a redshirt freshman who’s also from Florida and has many of the same abilities, while C.J. Holmes is a true freshman who may end up seeing time on the field.
The expectation is that even with such competition, Williams will find a way to begin making the most of his talent. After all, he endured plenty last season, most of it off-the-field concerns that forced him to wake up to the reality that he is replaceable.
Prior to the chaos that engulfed Williams last year, Brian Kelly saw him as someone who could make his mark as an inside runner. More specifically, Kelly saw him as a potential option in goal-line situations, something that could materialize during the upcoming season. 2017 may be the year that Williams begins fulfilling at least some of those earlier lofty projections.