With Tony Jones Jr deciding to pursue his NFL dreams instead of a 5th year at Notre Dame, the Irish enter the spring with just four scholarship running backs. A fifth arrives in the summer in speedster Chris Tyree, but for the spring, Lance Taylor has his work cut out for him with a group that is still very much unproven.
Taylor got a lot out of Tony Jones Jr in 2019 – much more than Jones had produced through his first two seasons of action. So. we’ve already seen Taylor do precisely what Notre Dame envisioned he would do – improve the production at the running back position. Now he is tasked with taking a running back room that brings a combined career 875 rushing yards. There’s talent to work with, but there are also questions around each.
Can Jafar Armstrong Stay Healthy?
Injuries have derailed Armstrong in each of his first two seasons at Notre Dame, which makes evaluating him as a running back extremely difficult. He has shown some flashes at times, but he just hasn’t been healthy enough for an extended period of time for anyone to know if Armstrong can be a legit RB1. Greg wrote an article recently that pondered whether or not Armstrong’s best position might be wide receiver – the position he was initially recruited for.
As of now, it doesn’t sound as if there is any chance of Armstrong moving positions, so the challenge for him this spring will be to stay healthy to give Taylor enough to evaluate his performance. Last year he entered the season with huge expectations, but rushed for just 122 yards on 46 carries with a single touchdown. That score came in the Camping World Bowl, where he ran for a mere eight yards on eight carries.
It is clear the staff likes Armstrong at running back and sees potential here, but this is a big spring for Armstrong.
Can Jahmir Smith be an Every Down Back?
Jahmir Smith is another back on the roster who had trouble staying healthy last year. After rushing for two touchdowns in the season opener against Louisville, Smith didn’t find the endzone again for the rest of the season. The only time we really even saw Smith in any sort of extended action after that came against Duke when he ran for 58 yards on eight carries.
In the limited time that we’ve seen Smith, he has shown better vision and feel for the position than Armstrong, who still runs upright and is more of an athlete playing running back. Smith is more of a natural running back. What we don’t know is if Smith can be an every-down back yet, or if he is more of a complementary player. He will have plenty of chances this spring to answer that question.
What does Notre Dame have with C’bo Flemister?
Another player who has flashed but still has a lot to prove is junior C’bo Flemister. In limited action, Flemister has shown that he can be a shifty running back capable of making defenders miss – something we haven’t seen a lot from Armstrong or Smith to date. Flemister scored five touchdowns last year, but most of his damage came in comfortable wins – Stanford, Bowling Green, Duke, Virginia, and New Mexico. He didn’t record a single carry against Michigan or Georiga.
Flemister came to Notre Dame very raw two years ago as a risk/reward addition to the class after the Irish struck out on all of their top targets. We don’t know yet whether Flemister is more reward or risk right now. He has shown flashes but will need a lot of improvement in pass protection if he is to move up the depth chart and seriously challenge Armstrong.
If there is a wild card among this group, it’s Flemister. Given what we’ve seen from him in the last two years, it wouldn’t shock me if he had a big spring and moved up the depth chart.
Will Kyren Williams be more than a receiving option?
There was some hope last year that Kyren Williams would come in and earn some early playing time in 2019 because he was an early enrollee a year ago. That didn’t materialize when Williams reportedly took some time learning the offense before ultimately redshirting. He did see playing time in the first four games before the staff decided to preserve a year of eligibility for him.
One area that Williams has an advantage over Smith and Flemister right now is in the receiving game – an area that Williams has excelled him since high school. He is a natural receiver out of the backfield. What we don’t know yet with Williams, though, is what he brings to the table as a between the tackles runner. He will need to show marked improvement there to have any shot of passing either Smith or Flemister.
One potential piece to this puzzle that Taylor won’t have to work with this spring is Avery Davis, who has reportedly moved back to the slot after returning to the offense in 2019 after the injury bug hit Notre Dame.
This is an important spring for all of the Notre Dame running backs given the opportunity for playing time, but it is especially crucial for the backs at the end of the depth chart with Chris Tyree coming in this summer. If he is close to the player that most expect, it will be hard to keep him off the field this fall. That will come at the expense of playing time for another back, so every back needs to stake their claim for playing time now or risk becoming an afterthought by the fall.