Cierre Wood

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Irish A-to-Z: Dexter Williams

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A third-string running back with home run potential, Dexter Williammade waves for the wrong reasons last week when he was one of five players in the infamous Ford Focus. The sophomore—thrown into the fire last season and ready to emerge in 2016—had been dazzling in camp, capable of breaking long runs, returning kickoffs and stepping into a small-but-important role in the offense.

With university discipline to be determined, Williams’ availability is still in question. So are his opportunities, running behind Tarean Folston and Josh Adams. But there’s no question the staff believes they have a big-time player in Williams, who’ll need to run his way out of the dog house and through the depth chart to carve out anything more than a supporting role this season.

 

Dexter Williams
5’11”, 210 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 2, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A Top 100 prospect, Notre Dame beat out Miami on Signing Day and held off Florida, Ohio State and USC as well. He came to South Bend in mid-January, the last recruiting win for Tony Alford before he left for Columbus.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Played in seven games in a reserve role, getting 21 carries for 81 yards, scoring one touchdown.  Biggest afternoon came in a reserve role against UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Was right that he was running behind Adams. And also right that he’s going to be a good one.

One freshman running back looks like he’s going to play this season. And while a single day of practice reps hardly tells a story, Williams is running behind Josh Adams so far in training camp. And while Josh Anderson earning a scholarship doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to get onto the field, Anderson was also taking major practice reps, a veteran who could show young guys (Brent included) how things are supposed to look.

At this point, you can make a valuable argument for saving a year of eligibility or getting some part-time experience. Notre Dame’s redshirt running backs haven’t utilized that fifth year, with neither George Atkinson or Cierre Wood sticking around for it. (Of course, Atkinson and Wood made moves that weren’t necessarily based on what was best for their future from an on-field perspective.)

Life has to be quite a whirlwind for Williams right now. New places, classes starting soon and a playbook that looks quite different than high school. But working with new position coach Autry Denson, he’ll be able to make what he wants from his freshman season. Right now, I’d be surprised if that’s a role that’s on field, though Williams will dictate that by his work on the practice field.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s a frontline back here, though he’ll need to find opportunities to show that. The last time we watched Notre Dame juggle three (healthy) runners, they carved out specific roles for Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and George Atkinson. Only Folston remains of that trio, and Adams and Williams are better backs than the other two already.

Williams has good long speed, and while it might not be quite as good as Atkinson’s, he might be used in a similar role in 2016. But he’s capable of doing more. And with two more seasons in South Bend, he’s capable of becoming the rare “feature back” in a Brian Kelly offense, though he’ll likely be the part of a future 1-2 punch with Adams in 2017 and beyond.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

The prediction here is still hazy thanks to Williams’ part in the preseason escapades. But Williams can play—and if he’s not marooned by the university’s disciplinary arm, it appears Kelly is willing to handle this internally while the four young players stay in the mix. I expect Williams to make some big plays this season, and with those plays will come more opportunities.

Josh Adams has been plagued by some training camp issues, namely a balky hamstring that’s limited Williams’ classmate all fall. Normally I’d view that as an open window for Williams, though if he’s sitting out more than a game or two, Adams will have his chance to get healthy and rolling first.

All of this is a long way towards getting to a prediction. I’ll go with this one: Williams will be third on the team in attempts, but lead the Irish in yards per carry. I think he gets around 50 carries and will turn those into a half-dozen touchdowns.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn
Nick Watkins
Nic Weishar
Ashton White

Counting Down the Irish: Ranking Notre Dame’s 2016 roster

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With training camp set to start later this week, it’s time for us to unveil our annual preseason roster rankings. And unlike last season, there’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to Brian Kelly’s seventh roster.

With a young, talented, and inexperienced roster, our panelists had a variety of opinions on how this roster breaks down. That’s to be expected, when the Irish need to replace a starting trio of wide receivers, their best NFL Draft class in over a decade, five captains, the top five players from our list last year and seven of the top ten.

Thirty-seven different players received a vote in your rankings, up from the 33 who found their way onto last year’s list. And while we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the instant impact many freshman could have on this team, it’s interesting to note that no true freshman made our list.

While just about every Irish fan could agree on last year’s 1-2-3 of Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, only one of our 12 panelist came up with the exact top three our rankings system produced. And Notre Dame’s starting quarterback? There seemed to be a consensus (both guys rated quite well), but it wasn’t unanimous.

For those looking to turn back the clock, here’s a look at each season under Brian Kelly and the Top Five players from each group (click the season for the entire list):

2015
5. Sheldon Day, DL
4. KeiVarae Russell, CB
3. Will Fuller, WR
2. Ronnie Stanley, LT
1. Jaylon Smith, LB

2014 
5. Tarean Folston, RB
4. Everett Golson, QB
3. Sheldon Day, DT
2. KeiVarae Russell, CB
1. Jaylon Smith, LB

2013
5. Prince Shembo, LB
4. Bennett Jackson, CB
3. Zack Martin, LT
2. Stephon Tuitt, DE
1. Louis Nix, DT

2012
5. Stephon Tuitt, DE
4. Zack Martin, LT
3. Cierre Wood, RB
2. Tyler Eifert, TE
1. Manti Te’o, LB

2011
5. Gary Gray, CB
4. Zack Martin, LT
3. Harrison Smith, S
2. Manti Te’o, LB
1. Michael Floyd, WR

2010*
5. Trevor Robinson, OT
4. Chris Stewart, OG
3. Manti Te’o, LB
2. Kyle Rudolph, TE
1. Michael Floyd, WR

As usual, this list couldn’t be possible without the help of many people. We surveyed a cross-section of Notre Dame experts, hitting up many of the outlets you turn to on a daily basis to cover your favorite football team.

Hope you enjoy.

Our 2016 Irish Top 25 panel:
Keith ArnoldInside the Irish
Bryan DriskellBlue & Gold
Matt FreemanIrish Sports Daily
Nick IronsideIrish 247
Tyler JamesSouth Bend Tribune
Eric Murtaugh18 Stripes
Pete SampsonIrish Illustrated
Jude SeymourHer Loyal Sons
JJ StankevitzCSN Chicago
John VannieNDNation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down
John WaltersNewsweek 

 

Last Look: Running Game

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The season is over. Before we turn our attention to recruiting and some of our offseason plans that’ll surely lead into an interesting spring, let’s take a look at the final stats from the 2015 Fighting Irish as we reach some final conclusions on the season that was.

We’ll start with the running game. Notre Dame’s ground attack was its most potent in the Kelly era, both the cumulative 2,699 rushing yards and the astonishing 5.6 yards per rush the team averaged, eighth-best in the country. Big plays certainly buoyed those totals—Josh Adams, C.J. Prosise and DeShone Kizer each had touchdown runs of 79-yards or longer and Brandon Wimbush added a 58-yard scamper as well.

All of this came from a depth chart not many expected to see. Exiting fall, C.J. Prosise looked like a contingency plan, a wildcard added to a two-deep of Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. That duo took the field for a total of three carries, Bryant exiting the program over the summer and Folston ending his season on the third carry of the year.

That didn’t stop the rushing attack. Prosise managed to be the first Irish back to break 1,000 yards since Cierre Wood did it in 2011. Adams set a freshman record for rushing yards. And Kizer set a school record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. Not too shabby.

Let’s take a closer look at the stats and hand out some end of the year awards.

Rush Totals

 

 

 

 

 

 

MVP: C.J. Prosise. The late surge by Josh Adams makes this a much tougher decision than I expected—especially with Prosise touching the football only 16 times after Halloween. But that would undervalue the first two-thirds of the season, and Prosise was a star for the Irish essentially through the USC game, going on a three-game run of averaging over nine-yards a carry while also making huge gains in the passing game as well.

Prosise was dynamic in the open field. He was tough to tackle. And his versatility was likely what led to the decision to head to the NFL instead of playing out his eligibility. He still has room for improvement as a running back, especially between the tackles and picking up the tough yardage. But he supplied a season’s worth of big plays in his limited action, a triumphant debut season as a running back.

 

Biggest Disappointment: Tarean Folston’s knee injury. You can only wonder what Notre Dame’s running game would’ve looked like had Folston lasted more than three carries. The Irish’s most natural runner, Folston doesn’t have the big-play speed that Prosise and Adams enjoy, but his vision and elusiveness would’ve been really impactful behind the Irish offensive line.

Prosise’s departure likely impacted Folston more than anybody else. With Adams and Prosise both returning, Folston’s role in the backfield likely would’ve made things cluttered. Now the Irish will enjoy a two-back platoon with sophomore Dexter Williams fighting for carries after showing some skills as a true freshman.

Folston’s rehab is on track, the rising senior is already running as he enters the fifth month of his recovery. He won’t likely do much in spring practice, but he should be ready to cut loose during summer, a critical time for his reemergence in the backfield.

 

Biggest Surprise: DeShone Kizer’s record-breaking season. If you had DeShone Kizer as the quarterback to break the touchdown record for his position, I’ll check your pockets for Biff’s sports almanac from Back to the Future 2. Kizer’s abilities as a runner were the big surprise of the season. They allowed the Irish offense to continue churning after Malik Zaire‘s injury, with Kizer showing a great feel for the read option and better-than-expected speed.

As a big-bodied 23o-pound runner, Kizer turned into Notre Dame’s short-yardage weapon of choice. He allowed the Irish to add an additional blocker to the box, neutralizing some of the defense’s advantages in addition to his size allowing him to fall-forward for tough yards. No, it didn’t pay off on the two-point play against Clemson late in the game. But Kizer’s 10 scores eclipsed a team record held by Tony Rice and Rick Mirer. Not too bad for a kid who was collecting dust as the No. 3 quarterback last spring.

 

Brightest Future: Josh Adams. Notre Dame’s freshman back might have the highest ceiling of any running back recruited by Brian Kelly. A hidden gem courtesy of an ACL tear suffered midway through his junior season, Adams arrived on campus expected to redshirt and instead set a school record for most yards as a freshman.

Adam’s 835 yards were impressive. He broke loose in his debut against Texas for two scores on five carries. His 70-yard run against UMass hinted at the breakaway speed Kelly and his staff saw when Adams camped in South Bend.

But more important than any highlight was the workload Adams took on when Prosise could no longer go. In the season’s final five games, Adams ran the ball 83 times for 570 yards, averaging 6.9 yards a carry and 114 yards a game against five tough defenses. A true freshman picked up the slack when there was nobody else to carry the load, and Adams produced at an elite level.

With an additional year in a college strength program and another year away from his knee surgery, Adams could have a monster 2016.

C.J. Prosise heading to the NFL

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C.J. Prosise‘s career at Notre Dame is over. The Irish’s 1,000-yard rusher announced that he’s entering the NFL Draft, forgoing his final season of college eligibility to turn professional. Prosise has graduated, but did not see the field as a freshman defensive back.

Prosise made the announcement via social media Saturday afternoon, a day after the Irish lost in the Fiesta Bowl to Ohio State.

Prosise NFL

Prosise’s breakout season at running back earned him the team’s “Next Man In” award at the year-end banquet. He was the Irish’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Cierre Wood did it back in 2011, getting off to a fast start before injuries plagued him for much of the second half of the season. Prosise still managed to average 6.6 yards a carry, rushing for 11 touchdowns and catching another among his 26 receptions.

The Virginia native asked for a draft grade from the NFL’s advisory board, though he did not reveal what kind of feedback he received. He’ll likely need to perform well at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, displaying the rare blend of size and speed that made him one of the most explosive backs in the country when he was healthy.

Sophomore Josh Adams now ascends to the No. 1 running back spot while rising senior Tarean Folston continues his recovery from ACL surgery. Fellow sophomore Dexter Williams will provide depth and the Irish have two running backs currently pledged to the 2016 recruiting class, Florida natives Tony Jones and Deon McIntosh.

Draft-eligble veterans Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller and KeiVarae Russell all plan on making a decision before the January 18th deadline. Russell said after the Fiesta Bowl that he planned on making an announcement in the near future.

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 28, Wake Forest 7

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For Notre Dame’s 2015 team, there will be victories that are remembered. And then there will be wins like Notre Dame’s 28-7 victory over Wake Forest.

On Senior Day, an emotional Irish team took the field after 27 seniors hugged mom and dad and came to grips with the fact that this might be the last time they play football in Notre Dame Stadium. Then they went out and won an ugly, never-in-doubt football game against a Demon Deacon team that dominated the time of possession, but couldn’t manage to get in the end zone more than once.

Notre Dame moved to 9-1 on the season, a victory that can’t be called dominant but certainly was never in question. So while talk of “style points” weren’t necessarily answered, Notre Dame managed to hand Wake Forest their second-most lopsided loss of the season—giving up points only after a Deacs drive was kept alive on a phantom roughing the snapper call.

With Romeo Okwara and Jaylon Smith leading the defense and freshman Josh Adams supplying the biggest play of the game—a 98-yard touchdown run that’s the longest in the history of Notre Dame Stadium—the Irish will  celebrate Senior Day in style.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Wake Forest kept the ball from Notre Dame’s offense and controlled the clock. But they still lost by three scores. 

Notre Dame’s high-powered offense suffered through a power outage on Saturday. The Irish managed just 282 yards of total offense, a number that looks even less potent when you take away Adams’ 98-yard touchdown run.

But Brian VanGorder’s defense stepped up when it mattered most, holding down the fort and even supplying a score of their own to help the cause.

No, the big plays didn’t disappear. Wake Forest made a few in the passing game and had success on the ground as well. But in the red zone the Irish defense held strong, holding the Demon Deacons to just one score on four attempts, turning the game on its head with a critical 4th-and-goal stop that turned into a game-changing score just two plays later.

Dave Clawson’s gameplan worked to perfection, keeping the ball out of Notre Dame’s hands and holding them to a season-low 49 plays. But Wake Forest could get points out of their possessions, and staying clean in the turnover column helped turn a white-knuckle offensive performance into a comfortable victory.

 

Romeo Okwara is emerging as the pass rusher Notre Dame desperately needs. 

Romeo Okwara’s recent run has given Notre Dame an unexpected edge rusher. The senior added three sacks to his season total, jumping to nine on the year as he disrupted Wake Forest’s passing attack almost single-handedly. That’s the type of season-long production Notre Dame fans could only hope for, and Okwara has done it with three games still to play.

With Daniel Cage unable to go on Saturday, the Irish defense shifted Isaac Rochell inside to play tackle and mixed and matched the best they could. That forced Okwara to play more snaps, with Andrew Trumbetti opposite Okwara along with seldom-used reserves Doug Randolph and Grant Blankenship.

The rushing defense seemed to suffer—we saw Trumbetti crash hard and miss his assignment on a big zone-read gainer, with other run fits slightly off. But the pass rush never slowed, Okwara picking up the slack with a hat trick a week after notching two sacks. (He nearly had his hands on a fourth sack, but committed a facemask penalty that was mistakenly called on sophomore Jonathan Bonner.)

Okwara seems to be turning into the football player many expected when he hit campus as a 17-year old freshman, all raw tools and still figuring out the game. While roster deficiencies at defensive end and outside linebacker made it impossible for Okwara to redshirt, Brian VanGorder is getting the type of play he desperately needs in this scheme, taking some pressure off Sheldon Day as well.

“It’s one of those things where he came onto campus as a 17-year-old that just really was a raw player,” Kelly said. “He’s grown in a very short period of time this year into the kind of football player that I think has a huge growth potential in front of him. We’re just seeing that maturation process kind of come together.”

 

He’s still a freshman, but Josh Adams is another big play weapon for Notre Dame. 

Backed up next to their goal line and needing a DeShone Kizer sneak just for breathing room, Josh Adams broke the game open. The true freshman burst off the right side, high-stepped out of a tackle and unleashed a stiff arm Earl Campbell would’ve been proud off, setting a stadium record and essentially winning the game as he pushed the Irish lead to three scores before halftime.

What was amazing about Adams’ 98-yard run was  that it could’ve easily been 140 yards—he was running away from everybody, his blockers included, as the freshman showed the type of top-end speed that has the Irish coaching staff believing they have their next great game-breaker at the position.

Both Adams and Prosise have broken 90+ yard touchdown runs this season. While the senior sat out for precautionary measures, Adams ran for 141 yards on 17 carries, his long run buoying a yardage total that didn’t tell the story of how tough the sledding was inside the tackles.

Setting aside the struggles Notre Dame’s offensive line had, it’s worth marveling at how different the Irish backfield looks. Not just from what was expected this year—Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, with Prosise getting a chance to contribute—but compared to the personnel that was here when Brian Kelly showed up.

In 2010, Cierre Wood broke a 39-yard run against Western Michigan. It was Notre Dame’s longest run since Robert Hughes went 46-yards in 2007. Since then, the Irish have made incremental progress.

Jonas Gray supplied a big play in his 79-yard score against Pitt in 2011, and George Atkinson had home run potential. But the biggest difference between this backfield and any in the last decade is the pure potential to go the distance on every touch.

Prosise has showed that by making big play after big play. Adams helped keep that going, his 141 yards keeping him at an astonishing 7.8 yards per carry.

 

James Onwualu may have suffered a significant knee injury. How Greer Martini and the Irish defense fill that hole remains to be seen. 

Junior linebacker James Onwualu suffered a significant knee injury early in the game, with an MRI coming tomorrow to determine the severity of it. The third starter in a linebacking corps that usually only mentions Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith, Onwualu is still a key cog to the defense, especially with a nickel grouping still figuring itself out.

Filling in capably was Greer Martini. Martini made four tackles and also filled Onwualu’s role stretched out to the hashmark, forced to play in a cover scheme that doesn’t necessarily play to the 245-pounder’s skillset.

While Boston College is a perfect game to play with a jumbo-sized SAM linebacker, Onwualu serves as a Swiss-Army backer, capable in coverage and getting better each week in the trenches. He had an early TFL in his only stop before he knee bent backwards with what Kelly deemed a potential MCL injury.

Notre Dame’s had decent injury luck of late, though the defense looked and played differently without Cage in the middle. We saw how little the margin for error is up front with Cage out. The secondary is already a high-wire act. So digging into the linebacker depth chart this week for answers is the next thing to figure out.

 

 

Seniors leave Notre Dame Stadium a much more dangerous place to play. 

Let’s tip our cap to the seniors. A class not many had high expectations for ended 2015 6-0 in Notre Dame Stadium, the 21st win for the group that matches the record set by the class of 1990 and 1991. (I’m not sure if you were following the Irish back then, but those teams were pretty good.)

That’s probably the best measurement of what this class did. And it was certainly something Brian Kelly appreciated, taking over a program that had become a pretty easy place for opponents to win.

“It’s always great to get a win for your seniors in their last home game,” Kelly said after the game. “They certainly have left a great legacy here at Notre Dame, with 21 wins… no senior class has ever won more games at home.”

The years before Sheldon Day and company got to South Bend, the Irish struggled at home. In 2011, they loss a mind-melting opener to USF. They also laid an egg against USC in their first night game in decades. The 2010 team lost to Michigan, Stanford and Tulsa at home. Charlie Weis faired no better. His final 2009 season saw him lose to USC, Navy and UConn at home. In 2008, they lost to Pitt and a nightmarish game to Syracuse.

But Kelly’s 2012 team went unbeaten at home. In 2013, only No. 14 Oklahoma beat the Irish. Northwestern and Louisville sullied the last month of the 2014 season, but this group rallied to defend their turf, finishing they home record with just three losses and two undefeated seasons in South Bend.

Night games. FieldTurf. Piped-in music. Kelly made it clear he thought all would help the Irish win more. And thanks to this 2015 class, he’s been proven correct.