In an offseason full of change for the Notre Dame offense, one position that isn’t going to be seeing a ton of it is at running back. The top three backs return for Tommy Rees’s crew and it will surely be considered the strongest position going into the 2021 season.
What Notre Dame has coming back, coming in, and going out is straightforward, but lets go over each and figure out exactly what Notre Dame is working with in the backfield in 2021.
Running Backs Out
- Jafar Armstrong: 135 carries, 513 yards, 30 receptions, 294 yards, nine total touchdowns
- Jahmir Smith: 53 carries, 223 yards, 3 receptions, 26 yards, two total touchdowns
It was quite the rollercoaster career for Armstrong at Notre Dame. He went from redshirt freshman receiver in 2017 to starting running back in 2018, injured midway through 2018 that derailed his season, the key to the offense in 2019 as a running back/receiver, injured during the first series of the season, and finally, third-team running back in 2020 who was later moved to wide receiver and an eventual grad transfer. With Armstrong, it felt like there was so much potential that never got realized, and we have to wonder where his career might have gone had he not been afflicted with a knee infection in 2018 that sent him on a never-ending injury course.
Jahmir Smith had similar injury issues that plagued what looked like a promising career. He scored the opening touchdown of the season in 2019 after Armstrong went out, hurt his toe a week later, which set him back, then didn’t make much of an impact other than a solid performance in home state of North Carolina against Duke. He sat out the 2020 season to focus on his mental health and is transferring away this season.
Running Backs Returning
- Kyren Williams: 215 carries, 1,151 yards, 36 catches, 316 yards, 14 total touchdowns (4 years of eligibility)
- Chris Tyree: 73 carries, 496 yards, eight catches, 65 yards, four total touchdowns (4 years of eligibility)
- C’Bo Flemister: 107 carries, 461 yards, three catches, 49 yards, 10 total touchdowns (3 years of eligibility)
Williams, Tyree, and Flemister represent the bulk of the running back production last season and what’s more is all three have eligibility beyond 2021. Notre Dame is set to have experience and talent in the backfield for the next couple of seasons at least.
It’s been written about (by me) that Notre Dame needs to ease the workload of Kyren Williams in 2021. He touched the ball 246 times on offense last year, by far the most on the team, with Chris Tyree in second at 81. The disparity was understandable to some degree with Tyree being a true freshman and Flemister not possessing the skillset of Williams as a runner or receiver, but given Williams’s size that’s too much to handle over the course of multiple seasons. Notre Dame will start to see diminishing returns from Williams if others don’t get more involved.
Even without the need to reduce the workload of Williams, you’d think that Tyree would see an increase in his level of play with a full offseason with the team, and a years worth of carries under his belt. Next year should be a very exciting from a running back standpoint.
Running Backs Coming In
- Audric Estime: four-star out of New Jersey
- Logan Diggs (probably): three-star out of Louisiana
I’m using a “probably” moniker next to Logan Diggs, who is committed to Notre Dame, but did not sign in December and is waiting till February, but all indications at the moment are that he will be a member of the Notre Dame team come fall camp in 2021.
Estime was the late offer and flip from Michigan State in December and is the current New Jersey Player of the Year. Estime brings what Notre Dame lost in Jahmir Smith, which is size. Williams and Flemister are both accomplished inside runners, but it’s a little different when it’s a 6-1, 215 pound bulldozer coming at the defense. Estime ran 190 times for over 1,800 yards and 22 touchdowns last season in only eight games of work and has over 3,900 rushing yards plus 50 total touchdowns for his high school career. He is no stranger to big production.
Diggs appears to be the versatile runner/receiver that will inevitably be compared to Theo Riddick who had a similar skill set. His senior film showed very impressive physicality as a runner and pass blocker for someone who is dynamic in the open field. If Diggs increased his top end speed like we saw out of Will Fuller once he left high school, Notre Dame could be in for a real star in Diggs. His upside could be far more than what conventional wisdom would say.
2021 Season Outlook
Running back should and really needs to be one of the more exciting and dynamic positions on the team. Williams and Tyree are both versatile runners, good in space, good in the pass game, and Tyree possesses the type of explosiveness that gives defenses pause. There should be no limit in the offense with either of these two on the field and 150 touches for both ought to be the goal.
Flemister will be able to provide a spell for either player and will be pushed by both freshmen for a role as the third team back. He is a good player who has 10 career touchdowns, not an insignificant number, but there is talent coming in behind him. It will be interesting if anyone challenges him for his touches. It should be noted Flemister touched the ball 60 times in 2020. Not a small or insignificant role by any means.
My hope is for the backs to be utilized more in the passing game as it takes full advantage of their skills and helps mitigate the losses and uncertainty at the receiver position. It also gives more touches to the most talented and proven players on the offense always a good thing. 2021 should be exciting and productive for the running back room.