Notre Dame enters the 2020 season with uncertainty at the running back position. There might not be another single position on the roster that is a bigger question mark. With Tony Jones Jr off to the NFL instead of pursuing a 5th year at Notre Dame, the Irish are left to make sense of a backfield that is full of backs but very light on returning production. That leaves a massive job for offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and running game coordinator Lance Taylor to complete in a very short time.
Notre Dame has six running backs on its roster for 2020, but none ran for more than 180 yards last year, one is a true freshman, one redshirted last year for Notre Dame, and one redshirted for Stanford before transferring to Notre Dame this spring. Here’s a look at the crowded backfield Rees and Taylor have to start sorting out.
Injuries. Injuries. Injuries. Each of the last two years, Armstrong’s season had ended before it really started because of injuries. He didn’t make it out of September in 2018 and didn’t even make it out of the opener in 2019. In each instance, he was never the same after those injuries.
Before the injuries, we have seen glimpses of what Armstrong can be. At this point, though, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be able to take a full season of hits as a number one back. It’s also fair to wonder if he can be the top back even if healthy. We’ve seen glimpses of him being a CJ Prosise type of back, but only in small spurts.
Armstrong’s high water mark as a running back came in September 2018 when he ran for 98 yards on just eight attempts with two touchdowns. Less than a week later, he was on the injured list with an infection in his knee. He hasn’t run for more than 52 yards in a single game since then.
Notre Dame was planning on making Armstrong a focal point of the offense a year ago, but an abdominal injury in the opener completely derailed his junior season.
Armstrong will enter the season as the leader in the clubhouse to be the top back, but history suggests that getting through a full season without getting banged up could be a challenge for him if he’s placed in a lead back role.
Jahmir Smith started his 2019 campaign off with a two-touchdown performance in the season opener against Louisville after Armstrong went down with his injury. He didn’t see the endzone again in the remaining 12 games of the season. The Duke game looked like it might be a turning point of sorts for him with an eight carry, 58-yard performance, but he didn’t gain a single yard in the last four games of the year while only totaling just seven carries.
What was impressive about Smith in the Duke game was we saw a bit of an extra burst we hadn’t seen before, as evidenced by his career-long 40-yard jaunt. Smith has always shown good vision, but not top-end speed. Unfortunately, we didn’t see that again from him in 2019. Was it just a random spurt against a mediocre defense, or is there something inside of Smith we haven’t seen yet?
Flemister has flashed some potential at times for the Irish. His touchdown run against Virginia last year, for instance, was a tough run where he showed that he’s got some power to his slashing running style. The problem for Flemister has been consistency. He only averaged 3.4 yards per carry as a sophomore in 2019 though he did rush for five touchdowns on the season. Only Tony Jones Jr rush for more, and his team-leading total was only six.
As a late addition to the class of 2018, when Notre Dame whiffed on nearly every one of their top running back targets, Flemister was always more of a developmental type recruit though, so the fact that he didn’t excel as a sophomore shouldn’t wholly discourage any Irish fan here. He wasn’t ever expected to be needed to play a significant role so early.
He’s got tools, but he’ll need to show much more consistency to make noise in the rotation this year. As a prep player, his film showed very good vision, and last year we got a brief glimpse of a power element. We haven’t seen him start to have it all come together for him, though, as evidenced by a career-long run of just 14 yards on 49 career carries. Missing spring ball was particularly detrimental to the development of a player like Flemister.
Heading into the 2019 season, there was some optimism that Kyren Williams would be a surprise freshman contributor. Notre Dame struck out on their top targets at running back in the class of 2019, but Williams was a priority for them in their next tier of prospects, and the staff pushed for him even over several other more highly rated recruits at the time. He came in with the reputation for being an all-around back that could play early – especially as an early enrollee.
Williams took longer to adjust to the college game than expected, however, and ended up redshirting in 2019 after playing in four early games. While it was a disappointing freshman campaign for him, he still has four years of eligibility left, and there is once again optimism that he could surprise in the fall. He has the best receiving skills of any of the other backs outside of Armstrong, who was a former receiver, and a second-year working with Lance Taylor could have him primed for a more prominent role than most Notre Dame fans are expecting.
Of the six running backs on the roster for 2020, Williams is the one with the greatest opportunity to surprise. Remember, the Notre Dame staff felt great about adding him to the 2019 class just a little over a year ago. At the same time, it’s a pivotal year for the youngster since he could also get completely lost in the crowded m
The biggest wild card in the entire backfield is Chris Tyree – a back who garnered 5-star status from different services throughout his recruitment. There is not a single more exciting back on the whole roster than Tyree in terms of speed and big-play potential. Simply put, he is one of the fastest running backs Notre Dame has ever landed.
The only problem for Tyree in 2020 will be what kind of load he can handle as a true freshman. While he has elite speed, he also has a smaller stature at just around 190 lbs. That is not the kind of frame that can typically handle lead-back status. That said, assuming there are games in 2020, I cannot imagine any scenario in which Tyree doesn’t have some sort of significant role in the offense.
Don’t expect Tyree to rack up 15+ carries a game – that is not something that many running backs have ever done during the Brian Kelly era – but look for Tyree to be used in a variety of ways to create mismatches and use his speed. For instance, having Tyree in the two-back alignment, we got glimpses of in 2019, and then motioning out into the slot would get him lined up with someone who won’t be able to cover him, adding stress on the opposing defense. His speed on the perimeter should be a tremendous asset as well, ala Josh Adams as a freshman in 2015.
The Notre Dame coaching staff’s concerns about its backfield were evident with their pursuit of Stanford grad-transfer Trevor Speights. The one-time four-star recruit struggled with injuries at Stanford and left with a career rushing average under 4.0 yards per carry. It was a smart move by the staff, given the lack of production collectively in this group, but adding an oft-injured running back who didn’t create a lot of highlights when healthy speaks volumes to how the Irish staff feels about its backfield.
Speights has talent, and if he can stay healthy this year, he could very well surprise. Like Armstrong, though, it’s fair to wonder if he will be able to stay healthy since he hasn’t been able to up to this point, and that was without ever being the lead back at Stanford.
He likely has two years of eligibility remaining since his previous injuries should be enough to earn a 6th year for a medical hardship. Still, for it to even be a question of him potentially using that at Notre Dame, he will have to separate himself from the pack here.
Expect there to be a running back by committee this fall. The staff would be wise not to rely on Armstrong being a featured back to keep him healthy longer this year. Tyree has all the potential in the world, but he probably isn’t ready to step in and be a lead back just yet. Smith, Flemister, and Speights all could have roles, but they will have to separate themselves from each other early in whatever camp Notre Dame has. Williams, meanwhile, is the one wildcard to keep an eye on. It feels very much look a boom or bust type year for him – either he surprises and earns a significant role in the offense, or he falls off and gets buried in a crowded depth chart.