On Sunday we took a look into who will lead Notre Dame in receiving yards in 2018 and came to the conclusion that Chase Claypool would lead the Irish and top 1,000 yards in the process. Today we turn our attention to the backfield and pose the question of whether or not Notre Dame will also feature a 1,000 yard rusher this fall. After how well the Irish ran the ball last year this would seem like a no-brainer, right? Not so fast my friend.
Notre Dame’s offensive line will be worse
Let’s be honest about this one and get this out of the way early. Notre Dame’s offensive line will be worse in 2018 than it was in 2017. You don’t lose two top 10 picks to the NFL and get better even if Alex Bars plays at an All American level and if all the experience Robert Hainsey and Tommy Kramer got year ago pays dividends this year.
Trying to convince yourself otherwise is like convincing yourself that Notre Dame wouldn’t miss a beat defensively after losing Manti Te’o and replacing him with Jarret Grace. I ventured down that path five years ago and am not gonna head down it again.
This isn’t to say the line will be bad or even significantly worse either. Notre Dame still has a ton of talent along the offensive line with Bars, Sam Mustipher, Hainsey, Kraemer, and Liam Eichenberg. Quenton Nelson was the best offensive line to play for the Irish since Aaron Taylor though and there isn’t anyone on the roster in 2018 at that level. Add in the loss of the top 10 tackle on top of that and there will be some natural regression.
So while the line will be very good again in 2018, it very likely won’t be opening up holes that you can drive a truck through as they did a year ago. That will impact the ability of any rusher to top 1,000 yards this year.
Who could be a 1,000 yard rusher for Notre Dame?
The most obvious potential candidate here is Tony Jones Jr. The junior enters the 2018 season following two years in which he generated a lot of hype in fall camp but didn’t generate a whole lot of production the ensuing fall. Jones ran the ball 44 times for just 232 yards last year and never topped more than 59 yards in a single contest in 2017.
Injuries have been one of the main factors limiting Jones the last two years though so if he is able to finally stay healthy for a full season, he’ll have every opportunity to be the lead back and could top 1,000 yards.
Standing in Jones Jr’s way is senior Dexter Williams. Based on talent alone, Williams has more than enough talent to be a 1,000 yard rusher if he too could stay healthy AND if he showed consistency in all other phases of the game besides running the ball. Williams has struggled in pass protection throughout his career which has limited his impact. The Citrus Bowl was a prime example of that. A play after ripping off a game long 31 yard run for Notre Dame, he missed a block on the next play that resulted in an intentional grounding penalty for Notre Dame.
As a pure runner though, Williams is one of the most gifted runners to play at Notre Dame under Brian Kelly. As a junior in 2017 Williams averaged a ridiculous 9.2 yards per carry on 39 attempts. He also found the end zone four times in those 39 attempts so he has a nose for the end-zone when given the chance as well. In his career he’s scored 8 touchdowns in just 99 carries.
After rushing for 124 yards in the season opener against Temple though, Williams didn’t run for more than 50 yards in any single contest the rest of the season. In fact, the lightly recruited and since transferred Deon McIntosh, was more consistent and impactful than either Williams or Jones for Notre Dame in 2017.
There’s also been rumor and innuendo around Williams’s eligibility the last few months similar to the speculation that surrounded Kevin Stepherson heading into 2017. Stepherson would go on to miss the first four games of the year without ever officially being “suspended”.
Is There a CJ Prosise on the roster?
The one dark horse here could be Jafar Armstrong. The sophomore converted from wide receiver to a hybrid role in the spring and looked the part in the Blue Gold game. Could Armstrong come out of nowhere like CJ Prosise did in 2015 after converting from being a wide receiver to a running back and explode? Remember, Prosise was not expected to be a full time back until Tarean Folston tore his ACL in week one against Texas.
The big difference between Armstrong and Prosise is that Armstrong is only a sophomore and didn’t play as a freshman in 2017 while Prosise was a senior (with two years of eligibility remaining) heading into 2015 and caught 29 passes for 516 yards as a junior in 2014. He also ripped off 75 yards rushing on three carries in the 2014 Music City Bowl.
To expect that type of outburst from Armstrong would be just a bit unfair at this point.
What about Brandon Wimbush?
By now you are probably asking yourself, what about Brandon Wimbush? Great question. He is actually the player on the roster that I think does have the best chance to top 1,000 yards this fall. Last year Wimbush racked up 803 yards and 14 touchdowns. With his lost yardage (which includes yards lost from sacks) removed, Wimbush was at 940 yards.
If he is able to hold on to the starting position for all 12 games (a question we’ll also be exploring this summer), Wimbush will have every opportunity to rack up a ton of yards on the ground again this fall. Brian Kelly and Chip Long most likely don’t want Wimbush running the ball that much though. On the other hand, if doing so is producing results and Wimbush protects himself from big hits, something tells me they won’t stop him from doing so.
Who else is there?
The Notre Dame running back depth chart doesn’t look as strong as it has been from top to bottom this year. Outside of Jones Jr, Williams, and Armstrong; the only other backs on the roster are true freshman Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and converted quarterback Avery Davis. Davis, though, is expected to be more of a hybrid player.
There still could be a position switch in the works that we haven’t seen. For instance, maybe Brian Kelly gives incoming frosh Tariq Bracy a look at running back given the numbers he is working with and the fact that the current freshman class featured four corners. That said, it would be a major shock if any of these players even topped 500 yards rushing, let alone 1,000.
If Tony Jones Jr or Dexter Williams are able to stay healthy for all 12 games – or in Williams case is able to also stay eligible for all 12 games – either one of them has the talent to be a 1,000 yard rusher for Notre Dame. I just don’t see it happening this fall. And no, that doesn’t mean I expect Notre Dame to air it out either even though I do think Claypool will top 1,000 yards receiving.
I am expecting the Notre Dame rushing attack to still be very strong this year, but for it to be more of a committee with a different back being the star from week to week. In 2012, Notre Dame did not have a 1,000 yard rusher but it still featured a run first attack that spread the ball around.
Right now, I think Jones will top out around 800 or so yards with Williams providing another 700 or so similar to what Cierre Wood did in 2012. Wimbush will hopefully see his rushing yards decrease while his passing yards decrease so let’s hope he comes in around 700 or so as well. I think Armstrong will end up playing a bigger role than anyone would have thought a few months ago and come in around 400 yards – just like McIntosh a year ago when he ran for 368 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Add all of that up and Notre Dame looks primed to have another strong rushing attack in 2018. What it doesn’t look like they’ll have, however is a 1,000 yard rusher. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.