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.