Notre Dame received one of the biggest verbal commitments they’ve gotten in quite some time last week when top-30 running back Chris Tyree committed to the Irish. It was the kind of commitment Notre Dame hasn’t had at the position in many years. With Tyree now on board and with new running backs coach Lance Taylor’s first spring with the team in the rear view, it feels like a good time to reassess where the Irish are at in the backfield.
Notre Dame lost Dexter Williams to graduation from the 2018 backfield. The loss of Williams is significant in that Williams was the only home run hitter among last year’s backs. And, it’s debatable if Notre Dame has another home run hitter in the 2019 backfield to replace that void. The only possibility it appears is Jafar Armstrong.
In 2018, Jafar Armstrong made the transition from wide receiver to running back. When Michigan arrived in town for week one, Armstrong was still very much learning the position. With Dexter Williams sidelined due to suspension though, Armstrong led the Irish in rushing attempts against one of the better defenses in the country.
Armstrong found the end zone twice that night, but his 15 attempts totaled just 35 yards against the Wolverines defense. Over the next few weeks though, Armstrong started to flash some big play ability. In week two, Armstrong ripped off a 42 yard run against Ball State. Week four he had a 30 yard rushing touchdown against Wake Forest Forest and reached the endzone twice once again.
Then the injuries hit.
Armstrong was ruled out for the Stanford game the night before the contest and then missed three straight games. Even once he returned though, Armstrong wasn’t the same back. He didn’t have the same burst he had at the beginning of the year and was still learning on the job.
In 2019, Armstrong looks like the only back Notre Dame has that can provide the kind of big play ability Williams gave the Irish in 2018 and Josh Adams in 2017. He’s got the top end overall track speed to give the offense that threat. It’s very much debatable if he’s got the football speed – or the natural feel for the position – to make the kind of plays Adams or Williams did.
Adams also needs to stay healthy this fall. If he does, he could be a big play back even if he isn’t the most natural running back on the roster. He might not hit as many home runs as Adams or Williams have in the past, but he could rack up a lot of doubles and triples.
Will the Real Tony Jones Jr Please Stand Up?
The most natural runner in the backfield could be senior Tony Jones Jr. He enters the 2019 season as one of the most enigmatic players on the roster. Throughout his career we’ve heard reports of Jones tearing it up in practice but we’ve only seen some rare flashes of it on Saturdays.
There is no debate whatsoever if Jones can be the same kind of breakaway threat as Williams was. He can’t. Jones is not a back that will see a hole and explode through it and run past a defense like Dexter did against Stanford. That’s just not his game.
Where Jones can be very effective, however, is between the tackles as the plodding, chain moving running back. That is, if Jones can stay motivated week in and week out. That is where new running backs coach Lance Taylor comes into play. Taylor’s coaching style is much different that of Autry Denson’s so perhaps that is the catalyst for a breakout senior campaign for Jones.
Between both Armstrong and Jones, there is reason for optimism that both could be much improved versions of the backs we saw in 2018 this fall.
Who’s 3rd in the backfield?
Armstrong and Jones look to be locked in as the top two backs – the order is still open for competition in fall camp but they look to be clearly above the rest of the backs. After them? There will be a healthy competition for the third running back position between sophomore Jahmir Smith and C’bo Flemister and early enrollee Kyren Williams.
This trio surprised many this spring so much so that it looks like Notre Dame could be done recruiting running backs for 2020 after the Tyree commitment. Originally, most felt Notre Dame could take two running backs even if they got Tyree. For instance someone like a Tirek Murphy to be the thunder to Tyree’s lightning. It doesn’t appear like that is the case now although Notre Dame could add a second back if that back has position flexibility.
The emergence of Smith, Flemister, and Williams is a big reason for that shift. Smith, similar to Jones, isn’t a burner and probably won’t have any 97 yard runs like Dexter Williams had against Virginia Tech, but he also might have the best vision of the backs on the roster. Smith impressed towards the end of the spring and looked like the 3rd back upon completion of the Blue and Gold Game.
Flemister is another back with great vision, but he looked like he was behind his classmate at the end of spring. Long term, Flemister still has the potential to be a productive running back for the Irish, but appears to need some more development. He’s flashed in practice since arriving on campus last summer so there’s talent there. Whether or not Taylor will be able to tap into that talent and turn Flemister into an every down back remains unanswered.
The last back in the mix is early enrollee Kyren Williams. Notre Dame zeroed in on Williams in the 2019 recruiting cycle making him a priority. Williams is another back most likely lacking home run ability on the college level, but possesses the ability to hit a whole lot of doubles when his time comes.
Is Notre Dame Better Off Than We Thought?
Running back was one of the positions of concern for Notre Dame as they entered the off-season after losing Williams and having some question marks there. After the spring and throughout the off-season though it seems as if almost every back is further along than expected and that Notre Dame might just be okay here this fall.
The two big keys will be keeping Armstrong healthy and Jones motivated. If Matt Balis and Lance Taylor are able to do that, Notre Dame could have a potent one-two punch on its hands at running back this fall with Jones pounding teams inside and Armstrong playing the role of gamebreaker. Those two roles fit both’s profiles and could help fuel another powerful Notre Dame rushing attack under offensive coordinator Chip Long.