Mystery, Intrigue Surround Running Back for Notre Dame

When Josh Adams made his decision to leave Notre Dame early for the NFL, the Irish depth chart looked well equipped to handle the early departure.  Things haven’t gone quite as planned for either Adams, who went undrafted last month, or Notre Dame after a pair of suspensions left the depth chart thin this spring.  As Notre Dame approaches fall camp the position is full of intrigue but many question marks as well.

One thing Notre Dame won’t be short on in 2018 is options at running back.  Between incumbent players, incoming freshmen, and some position switches; Notre Dame has at least six players who could see some carries this fall.  How those carries are distributed remains a mystery though.

Let’s run through all of those options.

Tony Jones Jr

For the last few years we’ve heard from those close to the program that Tony Jones Jr is the most complete back on the Notre Dame roster – even when Josh Adams was running at a near record breaking pace.  The problem has been staying on the field and showing that to be the case during game time.

Jones has been slowed by various, random, nagging injuries over the last two seasons so we haven’t really gotten a good look at him in game action.  A year ago he ran for just 232 yards on 43 carries after coming into the season with much higher expectations.  Jones has gotten praise for his receiving skills in practice as well, but that translated into just four catches last year for 13 yards last fall.

Odds are Jones will be the go to back unless Dexter Williams finally puts it all together, but can he stay healthy and be the back that coaches and media have seen in camp and practice?  That remains to be seen.

The Mystery Man: Dexter Williams

There is probably no bigger enigma on the 2018 Notre Dame roster than Dexter Williams.  Over the last three years we’ve seen Williams flash breathtaking talent at times only to display maddening lapses in pass protection the very next snap.  He’s had a few lapses in judgement off the field as well.

When healthy and focused, he is hands down the most explosive back on the team and a more explosive back than the vast majority of programs in the country have on their rosters.  Like Jones, he too has struggled to stay healthy and to this point in his career he hasn’t been sound enough in all aspects of his game to garner the trust of his coaching staff for more than a complimentary role.

Williams ran for only 324 yards last year but he did it on just 37 carries for an average of 8.8 yards per carry.  He also found the endzone 4 times on those 37 carries.  That kind of playmaking ability is what makes Williams’s situation all the more maddening.  If he is focused and disciplined this year he could explode with a monster season.  At the same time, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he ended his career as one of the biggest “what if’s” of the Brian Kelly Era.

The Newcomers: Jahmir Smith & C’bo Flemister

Outside of Jones and Williams, Notre Dame doesn’t return a single scholarship athlete who played running back in 2017.  They did add a pair of backs on the recruiting trail, but neither comes in with the kind of pedigree to suggest they could step right in and be a regular contributor.  Then again, who saw Josh Adams being the kind of back who would break the Notre Dame freshman rushing record this time in 2015?

Jahmir Smith enrolled early at Notre Dame so he has a leg up over his classmate C’bo Flemister, but both would likely benefit from a year on the scout team in an ideal world.  Flemister was a very late offer whose highlight reel suggested he should have had more than the 2-stars most recruiting services gave him.  Regardless, he won’t be on campus until July with the rest of the freshman and Smith was solid but not spectacular in the spring.

The Wild Cards: Jafar Armstrong, Avery Davis

Now here is where things start to get interesting.  Given Notre Dame’s paltry depth at running back this spring, Brian Kelly decided to dip into his depth elsewhere to find some help.  Enter sophomores Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis – both of whom shined as offensive jack of all traits this spring.  Armstrong looked a bit like a wide receiver trapped in a running back’s body last year so the experiment made a lot of sense.  Like CJ Prosise in 2015, the plan is to have Armstrong play more of a hybrid receiver/running back role.  Of course we all know how that hybrid plan worked out.

While it wasn’t that surprising to see Armstrong line up as a running back in the spring, it was a bit more surprising to see Avery Davis move from quarterback to a similar hybrid role.  Davis looked comfortable both receiving the football and running the ball out of the backfield though and showed the potential to be a real weapon in the Irish offense.  The staff has said quarterback is still his ultimate future, but he sure looked like a potential playmaker as a runner/receive in April.

While Armstrong has the build to be more of a CJ Prosise, Davis has more of a slender build and probably won’t be seeing any games with 10+ carries.  It would be surprising after we saw all of the ways the Irish coaching staff used him in the spring, however, if we didn’t see him involved in the offense this fall though.

Both Armstrong and Davis have a lot to learn about their new positions and roles, but it was pretty clear in the Blue Gold game that both have the ability to help the Irish offense this fall in more than an emergency, fill in kind of capacity.  With Davis’s abilities as a passer, having both he and Jones Jr in the backfield with Brandon Wimbush at quarterback simultaneously would create some absolute nightmare matchups for opposing defenses.

The Supreme Question Marks: Deon McIntosh & CJ Holmes

The reason Notre Dame is in this situation in the first place are because of the suspensions of Deon McIntosh and CJ Holmes.  Both were kicked off of the team this off-season for separate incidents leaving Notre Dame with the thin depth chart they took into the spring.  There have been rumors since both were dismissed from the team that there is a path back to the roster for both individually, but those rumors are still speculative and right now neither should be counted on to be on the roster this fall.

Should either be added back to the roster though, it would be a huge boost for the depth at the position . McIntosh was one of the biggest surprises on offense for Notre Dame last year with 368 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground including a 124 yard outburst against North Carolina with virtually every other Notre Dame running back sidelined.

Bottom line at running back for Notre Dame heading into fall is they have a lot of options but not a lot of answers right now.  There is a lot of potential at the position to make it a strength but they have some work to do between now and then for that to happen.

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  1. If Dexter Williams isn’t in trouble and is healthy, he better be the starter or something is wrong. 8.8 yards per carry and you guys care about pass blocking? I’ve said this before but people are making it seem like he just slides out of the way and lets guys run through without touching them every time he is in that situation. This definitely isn’t the case and I’ll give up a little bit of pass blocking for a guy as dynamic of a runner as Williams is. We need an Adams replacement and Williams is the only guy I know that can provide the homerun on any given run. 2 yard Jones isn’t going to cut it. I’m definitely intrigued by Jarar Armstrong though. He has some serious speed.

  2. Don’t let the tail wag the dog. This situation doesn’t affect the fact that at least 2 players will be trimmed from the roster, no matter what. Surely one additional player can be found that will contribute less than a player with talent and experience at position where experienced depth is needed.

    I’m not saying it’s going to happen. But if it does, it’s not that big of a deal in terms of scholarship numbers.

    1. Imagine fans actually getting chuffed up about having just 2 journeymen RBs in the league.

      The mighty ND Fighting Irish.

  3. When your offense doesn’t use running backs, you don’t interest kids who are aspiring running backs.
    They go to where they’ll get the ball, where they’ll win, and where they can get drafted.
    And that ain’t Kelly’s ND.

  4. Intrigue Indeed!!!!! It is anyone’s guess who becomes the starter of this group ???. It is like one of those good Agatha Christie novels that I use to read late night as a child filled with suspense ???. My guess is that Dexter Williams finally takes the role he was defined for and has a monster season. All the talent is there. He just needs to earn Kelly’s trust in pass protection. Here is a Positive Pete Prediction Primer. Avery Davis runs for over 500 yards and gives defenses fits when combined with Brandon WINbush!!!! Go Irish!!!!!

  5. Deon and CJ could work their way back onto the roster? I don’t understand the math that gets us to “85” this fall as it is, let alone if that happens. Could someone help me out with the numbers please?

    BGC ’77 ’82

    1. My thoughts exactly. They are still 2 over the limit so I don’t see a big rush in them coming back

      1. Until we know whether or not Dexter Williams is suspended for a game or four games or whatever rumor you choose to buy into, it’s a huge issue whether we have quality experienced RBs on the roster. The “silent” four game suspension that Stepherson experienced last season might be what Dexter Williams is facing this season. Don’t expect any news from ND until somewhere around or after the Michigan game.
        With the transfer of WR Canteen, ND has 86 scholarship players, or one over the maximum allowed. Without knowing why McIntosh was booted from the team, it’s difficult to guess whether he can earn his way back on. But the suspension of Williams, if true, is just pre-season business as usual at ol’ Du Lac. Rather than asking if, it’s customary to wonder who else!

  6. Wimbush will be able to sort it all out for His backfield running mate. Our ends will get us into the red zone and beyond. To confuse the opposition stack the backfield near the goal line, option style.

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