It is a matter of concern when only one tested running back returns, but that concern is somewhat mitigated when that back has proven himself both durable and consistent over the last two seasons.
Josh Adams has not missed a game in his career, and last season the junior carried the ball at least 10 times in all but one game—the 17-10 loss to Stanford in which quarterback DeShone Kizer and running back Tarean Folston combined for 19 attempts. Adams finished with eight rushes. Expect that usage to only increase, especially without Folston around to provide Adams spells of rest.
Assuredly, running backs coach Autry Denson hopes junior Dexter Williams or sophomore Tony Jones can allow Adams to catch his breath, but neither has proven that ability yet. Jones spent last year on the sidelines, fourth on the depth chart and preserving a year of eligibility. Williams, meanwhile, tallied only 39 carries for 200 yards and three touchdowns, his most-prolific output coming in Notre Dame’s 50-33 win over Syracuse when he finished with eight attempts for 80 yards and a score.
In many respects, Williams could provide a better complement to Adams than Folston did last season. It should be noted here, Folston may not have been at his peak after tearing his ACL in 2015’s opener. Either way, he was not the bruising yet agile runner last year he shined as in 2014.
Williams, known for his speed, could force defenses to change gears whenever he steps in for Adams. At least, that is the theory.
Early enrollee C.J. Holmes, also a regarded blazer, will force Williams to perform in order to earn that dynamic role.
There will be carries available for whomever fills the position directly supporting Adams, but expect the starter to be the bell cow. Adams increased his rushing attempts by 41 last season in one fewer game and is already on pace to finish in the top three of Notre Dame’s career rushing yards leaders. The record-holder? None other than Denson with 4,318 yards. Adams currently stands at 1,768, including the 835 in 2015 that set the Irish freshman record.
Nothing would please Denson more than to see Adams enter his senior season with a viable chance at breaking his coach’s record. Doing so would likely also indicate an overall improvement on last season’s team rushing production. As noted in Wednesday’s look at the offensive line, Notre Dame finished with 2,123 rushing yards on 410 attempts for an average of 5.18 yards per carry when removing sacks and the yards lost from them—the NCAA counts sacks as rushes, despite how they can inappropriately distort rushing statistics.
Certainly, the offensive line’s performance will greatly affect the Irish rushing attack, but this quartet of running backs will inevitably receive the praise if the ground attack were to flourish. That will start with Adams. The question is, no matter how durable and consistent Adams may be, who will provide the needed influx in conjunction with him?
The primary impetus in determining the Notre Dame depth chart at running back will be production in the rushing game, but another factor should develop into a notable aspect this season.
When discussing the hiring of new offensive coordinator Chip Long, Irish coach Brian Kelly noted Long’s inclusion of the backfield in the passing game, in more than a blocking capacity.
“I wanted the offense to look a specific way,” Kelly said. “Chip gives me, clearly, something that I saw that will resemble what I see through his offense. It’s going to be the inclusion of the backs and the tight ends in the passing game.”
In his one year as Memphis’s offensive coordinator, Long’s running backs caught 51 passes for 477 yards and five touchdowns. Last year, Adams, Folston and Williams combined for 33 catches for 275 yards and one score.
Looking closer, though, one notices the snaps Long will reward a back with if the ball carrier has demonstrated a penchant for catching the ball. While Memphis’s leading rusher, Doroland Dorceus, caught 10 passes for 77 yards and a score, three other running backs caught as many or more passes:
Darrell Henderson – 20 catches – 237 yards – three touchdowns
Patrick Taylor, Jr. – 11 catches – 37 yards
Sam Craft – 10 catches – 126 yards – one touchdown
If, for instance, Jones establishes himself as a passing game threat but Williams is indeed the more dynamic runner, Jones very well may end up at quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s side on many third downs.
Josh Adams 2015: 117 rushes – 835 yards – 7.1 average – six touchdowns
Josh Adams 2016: 158 rushes – 933 yards – 5.9 average – five touchdowns
Dexter Williams 2015: 21 rushes – 81 yards – 3.9 average – one touchdown
Dexter Williams 2016: 39 rushes – 200 yards – 5.1 average – three touchdowns
Positional Group Spring Preview Schedule:
Wednesday: Offensive Linemen
Thursday: Tight Ends/Receivers
Today: Running Backs
Sunday: Defensive Backs
Tuesday: Defensive Linemen
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins