Five things we learned: Notre Dame 59, Air Force 33

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On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in South Bend, the Irish offense sprinted out to an early lead and never looked back, scoring 59 points — 42 of them in the first half alone — as Notre Dame rolled to a 59-33 win over the Air Force Academy. On a Saturday where sunshine and blue skies provided a perfect setting for football, Brian Kelly‘s offensive juggernaut did its best to one-up the weather, no small feat in early October.

Just how impressive were the Irish offensively in the first half? Consider these six touchdown drives:

  • Eight plays for 81 yards in 2:47 on their first drive. Michael Floyd with the touchdown catch.
  • Nine plays for 59 yards in 3:33 on their second drive. Tyler Eifert with the touchdown catch.
  • Four plays for 51 yards in 1:41 on their third drive. Robby Toma with the touchdown catch.
  • Five plays for 38 yards in 2:02 on their fourth drive. Jonas Gray with the touchdown run.
  • Six plays for 44 yards in 2:21 on their fifth drive. Cierre Wood with the touchdown run.
  • Six plays for 7 yards in 1:06 on their sixth drive. Theo Riddick with the touchdown catch.

That’s six first half drives and six touchdowns, each capped off by six different players.

“We’ve got very good diversity within our offense,” Kelly said after the game. “We’re hard to defend right now.”

Hard to defend might be an understatement, as the Irish racked up 59 points, the most points scored by an Irish team since Lou Holtz‘s 62-0 blasting of Rutgers in his final game in Notre Dame Stadium.

Let’s find out what else we learned in Notre Dame’s 59-33 victory over Air Force.

1. The Irish have put together a devastating rushing attack.

With Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray giving the Irish their best one-two combination since Ryan Grant and Julius Jones, Notre Dame has balance on offense like they haven’t had in a very long time. The Irish racked up 266 rushing yards, continuing a string of impressive games. The Irish have run for 735 yards over the last three wins, their most in a three-game span since 2003. And the best thing about it? It was quarterback Andrew Hendrix that led the team in rushing, with 111 yards.

The Irish ran for a gaudy 9.2 yards per carry, numbers that would have been even better if the Irish didn’t run for just seven yards on their final seven carries of the afternoon. Take those runs out and the Irish ran for 259 yards on 22 carries, roughly 12 yards a carry. To put it into context, Julius Jones ran for 262 yards on 24 carries in his record-setting performance against Pitt in 2003. The Irish didn’t need to put the weight on one man’s back, and with Wood and Gray carrying the load, and Hendrix adding a zone-read wrinkle into the mix, the Irish’s offense — led by some incredible work up front by Ed Warinner‘s troops — did some devastating work.

“The pieces are starting to come together for us,” Kelly said of the offensive balance. “We’re getting there. It starts really with the running game and the ability to run the football.”

2. Andrew Hendrix adds a new dimension to the offense. And he makes Tommy Rees better.

Kelly hinted at it earlier this week, and sophomore Andrew Hendrix’s debut at quarterback was about as impressive as you could ask for. Hendrix was perfect throwing the football, operated from six different formations while running the ball with conviction, only stopping himself when he ran out of gas at the one-yard line on a 78-yard scamper.

Used as a change of pace quarterback while mixing in with Tommy Rees, Hendrix gave the Irish offense another running look while also keeping defenses honest with some efficient passing. It’s all part of a plan installed to evolve the offensive gameplan and use Hendrix’s skillset to make Rees even better.

“Andrew does not have all of the grasp on the offense that he needs,” Kelly said. “But he certainly is somebody that can go in the game and do good things.

“A lot of this has been crafted towards how do we make Tommy Rees a better quarterback, instead of Andrew Hendrix just being out there. Now there’s so much versatility in which you have to defend.”

Kelly made it clear that Dayne Crist is still the No. 2 quarterback for the Irish. But after five games of wondering whether or not the Irish would use a change of pace quarterback, they rolled out the blueprint for how they want to use Hendrix, and he executed perfectly.

3. With a near perfect day, the maturation of Tommy Rees continues.

After struggling to keep the ball in the offense’s hands, Rees continues a run of really impressive play. The sophomore quarterback completed 23 of 32 passes for 261 yards, throwing four touchdowns to four different receivers in the first half — joining Brady Quinn as the only other Irish quarterback to ever throw for four scores in the game’s first thirty minutes.

“He’s growing as he goes here,” Kelly said of his sophomore quarterback. “I keep reminding you guys and hopefully you’ll start listening to me. He’s 8-1 as a starter and he continues to grow and develop and we are seeing that maturity.”

For a second straight game, Rees wasn’t sacked. And with time in the pocket, he showed his ability to be the perfect distributor for Kelly’s passing offense, finding seven different receivers and moving the Irish close to flawlessly throughout the afternoon.

The Irish converted 8 of 11 third downs, a devastating stat for Air Force, and identified just about all of Air Force’s exotic attempts to bring pressure. More importantly, he took care of the football — forcing only one or two balls into tight windows and making proper reads when he had one-on-one opportunities.

Rees has done plenty to show that he’s a capable pilot for the Irish’s offensive attack, but nothing more important than eliminating mistakes when the Irish had chances to put points on the board, and being more efficient in the scoring zone.

“I think a lot of it was on me not finishing drives,” Rees said after the game. “I really took it upon myself, just to make sure we are limiting mistakes. We have been so good between the 20s, so for us to go out two weeks in a row and capitalize on opportunities is a good feeling.”

With USC on the horizon, Rees will now have two weeks to prepare for a defense that forced the then freshman into the worst game of his Irish career.

4. The Irish offense gave the USC coaching staff plenty to talk about.

If you’re wondering why it seemed like Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar all but emptied the playbook against Air Force, it might be because they’ve got a special opponent coming up in two Saturdays. With the Trojans off this Saturday, Lane Kiffin and company had all afternoon to watch Notre Dame run all over the field, establishing various weapons and give a leaky Trojan defense even more to think about.

While he didn’t get the opportunity to return one, we saw Michael Floyd back to receive punts. After not running the ball with Theo Riddick all season, we saw Riddick pick up a nice gain on a reverse, and lead the team with eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. Empty set formations with five wide? Option pass plays? Kelly showed a variety of new looks, which stumped Air Force’s defense, but also added a few more hours to the next Trojan film session.

As the Irish reach the halfway point of the season, it’s clear they’ll head into a prime-time affair with USC armed with an offense that has multiple ways to hurt you and a second quarterback that will provide plenty of problems for defensive coordinators.

“I really couldn’t tell you,” Kelly responded when asked if Hendrix’s big game means more snaps in the weeks to come. “All I know is you’re going to have to defend him because he’s pretty good.”

Precisely why Kelly waited to reveal him this week.

5. There are still plenty of questions about Notre Dame’s ability to stop the option.

Now to the not-so-pretty part. The Irish really struggled defending Air Force’s offense. The Falcons came into Saturday with the No. 12 offense in the country, averaging just over 513 yards a game. They actually improved on that number, putting up 565 yards to the Irish’s 560, and ran the ball for a staggering 363 yards, nearly identical to their average total on the season.

Without Ethan Johnson, the Irish were forced to use a lot of Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch, and the duo combined for six tackles, with Lynch contributing just one assisted tackle on the afternoon, while also getting flagged for a major penalty and a major screw-up, jumping offside on a 4th down field goal attempt that gave the Falcons a first down and a touchdown on the ensuing play.

Bob Diaco‘s game plan consisted of moving Jamoris Slaughter down into the box, replacing Prince Shembo in the base defense. The move worked, and Slaughter played his best game in an Irish uniform. He made a highlight reel interception and forced a fumble on the first defensive play of the game, supplying just what the Irish needed with two huge turnovers in a game where turnover margin was the most important stat of the day.

Yet the Irish also got gashed by both the option and the zone read, with Asher Clark running for 102 yards on just 11 carries, and the Falcons averaging 6.1 yards a carry on 60 runs. Harrison Smith led the Irish with 12 tackles, but struggled to come up and play support on the option pitch, missing a number of tackles. Manti Te’o was the lone bright spot in the option game, playing under control, making 2.5 tackles-for-loss to go along with his ten stops and one pass breakup.

Sure, Air Force racked up a ton of yardage in the games final minutes when the score was long out of hand. But Air Force converted a ridiculous five of five on fourth-down gambles and Tim Jefferson looked good completing several big passes for first downs. The Falcons present a challenge even Navy can’t replicate, but Diaco’s troops haven’t shown the ability to stop an option attack consistently. While the gamble with Slaughter was a good one, keeping Prince Shembo on the sideline, limiting Sean Cwynar’s snaps and using freshman Chase Hounshell for the first time after burning Kona Schwenke’s eligibility just a week ago are decisions that some people might question.

But with the Irish moving to 4-2 and riding a four-game winning streak into an off-week, the Irish’s impressive drubbing of Air Force showed one thing quite clearly: The most effective defense against a great option attack is a good offense.

The Irish showed that in spades.

 

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

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Notre Dame has such tight end depth, it was somewhat surprising when the Irish pursued a second tight end in the class of 2018, but the possibilities of yet another playmaker in Tommy Tremble combined with a physical option in George Takacs forced the coaching staff’s decision.

“I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Feb. 7. “… We don’t want to pass up on a great athlete … being able to present different challenges to the defense with those kind of guys and still be very physical at the same time.”

That is a key to remember when looking at the Irish tight ends — Long sees different purposes amid the individuals in that position’s meeting room. Tremble, for example, could line up as a receiver as often as not while Takacs might fill in as Durham Smythe most recently did, serving as an additional blocker when needed and offering sure hands otherwise. In many respects, the two roles are two different positions.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nic Weishar, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had shoulder surgery recently, though Kelly did not offer a timetable for return.
— Rising senior Alizé Mack.
— Rising sophomore Cole Kmet, when he is not pitching in relief for the Irish baseball team. Kmet made his second appearance of the season Thursday night. A letdown (3.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 4 K), it did not go anywhere near as well as his debut did (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 3 K).

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— Rising sophomore Brock Wright, who underwent a shoulder surgery of his own shortly following the regular season. A recent photo (left) from the @NDFootball Twitter account indicates Wright is partaking in at least some winter conditioning drills.
— Early-enrolled freshman Takacs.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Tremble.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Long uses multiple tight ends, deploying both of those aforementioned archetypes at the same time. That tendency should be seen even more often in 2018 with more options now available. A full year in a collegiate program should have both Kmet and Wright ready for bigger roles, challenging Weishar for some of what were Smythe’s snaps in 2017.

The third tight end will see opportunities. It is essentially a second-string role. If granting the argument of two different forms of tight ends, then even the fourth tight end will get chances, as he will simply be the second-stringer in that particular role.

Kmet would seem the more likely of the rising sophomores to get a bit more time, but that only means Wright will see plenty of time in a blocking back role, just as he did in situational packages in 2017.

Biggest Question:
Kmet could find his way to a more prominent role if he offers something not yet seen from Mack: consistency not just on the field, but in all respects.

Can Mack finally translate his athleticism and potential into a consistent mismatch and productive threat? At his best, he could be the product of an offensive coordinator’s daydreams, but Mack has so rarely been at his best. That applies both on and off the field, considering his multiple drops in 2017 were followed by Kelly suspending Mack for an internal team matter for the Citrus Bowl before Notre Dame even headed down to Florida.

Another year of Mack spinning his wheels will result in a loss of playing time with the likes of Kmet and Tremble around. If Mack does not provide positive results in the spring while Kmet does, that shift could begin even before the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will provide Notre Dame not only with depth and experience in 2018, but also sure hands. That alone should give him a leg up on the other tight ends entering this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Pertinent Reader Question:
“Every year a four- or five-star disappoints and every year a three-star or lower prospect surprises. My prediction is fall: Mack, rise: Weishar. I have been the lone man on the Weishar bandwagon for a few years now and really hope that this year he becomes the big receiving target we need.

What are your fallers and risers for this coming year?” — Mark H.

A logical argument can be made that “fallers” should not be labeled as such until after their collegiate careers conclude. There are so many factors that can limit a player for years before he breaks out. Consider rising senior receiver and former consensus four-star prospect Miles Boykin. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he may have been labeled a bust, but now he can lay claim to one of the most dramatic catches in Irish history and is a frontrunner for a starting role in 2018 with another year of eligibility remaining after that. He could end up with a stellar collegiate career by every measure.

Mack has had the opportunity to shine to date, and he has not done so, but he also might have two more seasons to go to change that reputation.

As for “risers,” Weishar makes sense and he certainly showcased his strong hands when given the chance in 2017, but his ceiling is likely not much higher than that. A couple touchdown catches, a handful of third-down conversions and a year of physical blocking would be a welcome success.

Notre Dame’s safeties, though, could stand out to fit the criteria laid out by Mark. If — and that is a two-letter word not to be overlooked — Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman and rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath end up as productive starters for the season, then they will both have exceeded the expectations set out by star ratings.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by six receptions for 38 yards against North Carolina with rising junior quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush.
Weishar: Nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.
Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards; appeared in all 13 games.
Wright: Appeared in 11 games, no statistics recorded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: George Takacs
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tommy Tremble

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister