Notre Dame is set to sign a class full of difference makers. Greg already covered the top-level talent Notre Dame is bringing in at the skill positions, including 5-star running back Chris Tyree. The one major knock on this class you’ll see written about will probably be Notre Dame missing out on its top targets in the secondary, but if you ask me, one of the overlooked misses in this class was Notre Dame deciding to only take a single running back.
Now don’t get me wrong, Chris Tyree is a phenomenal talent who could be another game-changing running back for Notre Dame ala Dexter Williams and Josh Adams – only with more production in the passing game. He has the chance to be one of the best all-around backs that Notre Dame has had lineup in their backfield in some time.
The only problem with Tyree is he is just one player. If we learned anything about the Notre Dame backfield in 2019, it’s that the group is devoid of game-changers right now. Jafar Armstrong has shown flashes, but availability has been an issue for him. Tony Jones Jr had his moments too – most notably his outburst against USC, but like Armstrong, his durability seemed to limit his effectiveness again this season. C’bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith showed promise, but only in spurts. Kyren Williams, an early enrollee last year, ended up redshirting as he adjusted to this level.
None of this is to say that amongst this group there isn’t a back or two that can still develop. Armstrong still has two years of eligibility left. Flemister and Smith have three. Williams has four. There is still a lot of time for all of them to develop. At the same time, the Notre Dame staff is putting a lot of trust in their projections by not taking another back to compliment Tyree.
In 2019, Jones was the only Notre Dame running back to rush for more than 200 yards. His 722 yards led the Irish, and his 5.4 yards per carry average was solid, but other than Jones, no Irish back averaged more than 4.3 yards per carry who ran for more than 180 yards (Smith had 180 on 42 carries). Ian Book ended up running for more yards than Smith, Flemister, and Armstrong COMBINED. Book totaled 537 to the trio’s combined 426. There were issues with the offensive line that played a role in the ineffectiveness of the rushing attack, but that is not a lot of production out of the running back room this year.
Notre Dame could have added more to that room than Tyree, but once Notre Dame landed him, they cooled on all other backs and then stopped recruiting them all together.
The one back that would have made the most sense to continue recruiting to pair with Tyree was New York native Tirek Murphy. He visited Notre Dame back in May, along with Tyree, and absolutely loved his visit. Murphy stands 5’11” and weighs in at 220 lbs compared to Tyree’s 5’10”, 180 lbs frame (official heights and weights Notre Dame releases today may differ). Murphy could have been the thunder to Tyree’s lighting.
Murphy ended up committing to Purdue shortly after Tyree committed to Notre Dame so there is no guarantee that he would have followed Tyree had Notre Dame not cooled on adding a second back, but it’s hard to imagine that Notre Dame wouldn’t have won that battle – especially with Lance Taylor handling Murphy’s recruiting.
Taylor is the wildcard in all of this too. Notre Dame is banking on him to develop a group of backs that will enter 2020 with a lot of questions. Can Armstrong stay healthy? Will Jones return for a 5th year? And if so, will he be able to hold up all year too? Will either Flemister, Smith, or Williams take a major leap forward?
Taylor has a track record of getting the most of his running backs, but this year we didn’t get a great sense of what he is capable of considering his top backs were hurt for a large portion of the year, and his sophomore backs were both considered more developmental prospects when Notre Dame recruiting them after missing out on top targets in the class of 2018. If there was one surprise with Taylor this year, it was that Williams ended up redshirting after coming to Notre Dame with more of a pedigree than some of his backfield mates and early enrolling.
Ultimately we won’t know for a few years if Notre Dame made a big mistake in not adding a second back – Murphy specifically – but with scholarships available in 2020 and a running game that failed to meet expectations in 2019, not taking a second back is one of the more curious decisions from the Notre Dame coaching staff with the class of 2020. One Brian Kelly figures to be asked about at his Signing Day press conference later today.
Again, Tyree is the best back that Notre Dame has recruited in a long time, and all signs point to him being a big-time player for the Irish for years to come. Adding a complimentary back that provided a little more thump to the Notre Dame rushing attack, however, could have been a good idea given the struggles of the Irish rushing attack this year.
If Tyree steps on campus this summer and is the game-changer many expect him to be from day one this could be a moot point, but without Tyree enrolling early to learn the playbook and participate in the off-season weight program, it’s a safe bet that he might take a bit of time to hit his stride next year.