The Notre Dame running attack was a bit MIA for the first two weeks of the season before the Irish put up 245 yards this past weekend. That was still a little more than 20 yards under their weekly average from a year ago. One missing component that should be reinserted back to the Irish lineup soon though that could take the running game back up another level or two. Dexter Williams.
Dexter Williams has apparently been officially, unofficially suspended so far this season. Notre Dame and Brian Kelly cannot comment on the issue due to privacy laws since the alleged suspension is a University disciplinary action. The media has apparently been given the message not to ask any more either since Kelly was asked once over the summer and then once again prior to the Michigan game about him and not since. Reports are that the suspension will last another week before the senior running back should be eligible to return against Stanford. It won’t end a moment too soon.
Even last week when the Notre Dame running attack churned out 245 yards and averaged over 5.0 yards a carry, the Irish running game was still missing one element from last year that made the Notre Dame rushing attack so deadly at times. The homerun play. Josh Adams built a highlight reel of long runs early in the season against Miami of Ohio, Boston College, North Carolina, USC, and NC State specifically. In some cases, his homeruns changed the course of games.
Notre Dame has been missing that so far this season. The homerun has been largely absent from the Notre Dame running game outside of Jafar Armstrong’s first carry against Ball State that went for 42 yards. Heck, doubles and triples have been in short supply so far this year . Dexter Williams can add that element back into the Notre Dame rushing attack.
A season ago Williams averaged a ridiculous 9.2 yards per carry average. It would have led the nation if he had enough carries to qualify. He did not as Williams often came to the sideline due to deficiencies in his blocking assignments. Brian Kelly praised the running back for the work he put in during the off-season over the summer though. And at this point even if Williams is still somewhat lacking in that department, the Irish will likely live with it to add some explosion back in the ground game.
Tony Jones Jr had his breakthrough performance last week against Vanderbilt with 118 yards on 17 carries, but Jones is more of “thunder” back. He’s got excellent balance and vision, but he is not the kind of back who will turn the corner and explode the way Adams did so often last year or the way that Williams has shown he is capable of in the past. Conversely, he is the kind of chain moving running back that Williams isn’t exactly.
Jafar Armstrong has shown a ton of potential as a running back so far, but the converted wide receiver has also shown that he still needs to grow into the position a bit still as well.
If Notre Dame gets a focused Dexter Williams back in two weeks, the Notre Dame offense that has struggled so much these first three weeks will be getting something it has sorely lacked – a playmaker. The Irish offense hasn’t had anyone step up yet to deliver big, explosive plays other than Chris Finke’s first quarter touchdown against Michigan that feels like it was a lot longer than the three weeks ago that it occurred.
Williams only ran the ball 39 times a season ago, but on those 39 attempts he scored four touchdowns. On his career he only has 99 career attempts, but those attempts have produced eight rushing touchdowns.
Notre Dame still has a number of issues to solve offensively, but we saw the offensive line take a big step forward last week after a really rough outing in week two . If Jeff Quinn can build on that performance and keep his line improving, there will be the potential for big plays in the running game like we have all became accustomed to. Getting Dexter Williams back in two weeks will also give the Irish the type of big play, explosive back that can take advantage of those opportunities.
It will be interesting to watch just how Williams ends up being assimilated back into the Notre Dame offense once he “officially” returns. The staff was reluctant to give Williams too many carries last year because of those areas of weakness that Williams was not improving on – namely pass protection and the less glamorous things a running back has to do. Will they do the same this year – if Williams hasn’t improved – or will they live with some of it to produce more big plays?
Assuming Williams is indeed back against Stanford and focused next weekend, he could team with Tony Jones Jr to give Notre Dame the kind of backfield most were expecting. We saw Jones take that big step forward last week by running with conviction and refusing to be tackled on the first attempt. Add Williams back into the mix and Notre Dame has one heck of a one-two punch. Then mix in Jafar Armstrong in more of the hybrid role that was originally envisioned for him and maybe, just maybe this offense will start to resemble what we saw a year ago sooner rather than later.