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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 2 Dexter Williams, senior running back

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-11, 203 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: A senior, Williams has one season of eligibility remaining.
Depth chart: If all things were known and equal, Williams and junior Tony Jones would be listed on the Irish depth chart as starters with an “OR” designation. If both are available, the play call will determine which gets the starting statistic more than anything else. The split in their carries will be a more accurate indication of whom the coaching staff prefers, but even that could be skewed by opponents.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star prospect from Orlando, Fla., one of Williams’ final-two schools was a logical likelihood: Miami. Yet, the No. 12 running back in the class and No. 120 player in the country, per rivals.com, Williams chose Notre Dame, also spurning Florida, Ohio State and USC.

CAREER TO DATE
Each of Williams’ first two seasons were clouded by uncertainty about his playing plans. It seems to be a theme. Any plans of a freshman year spent preserving eligibility went out the window when then-junior Tarean Folston suffered a season-ending injury in the opener. Williams did not become a vital part of the offense, but he was needed for both depth and contingency plans.

Then he joined four other Notre Dame players in an arrest for marijuana possession weeks before the 2016 season commenced. That issue cleared up pretty quickly for four of the five, but it remains a transgression to remember.

2015: Seven games; 21 carries for 81 yards and one touchdown in a blowout against Massachusetts.
2016: 12 games; 39 carries for 200 yards and three touchdowns, an average of 5.1 yards per carry.

Last season, Williams stood out as a theoretical change-of-pace back to junior Josh Adams’ record pursuits. The limiting issues to prevent that from becoming a true reality were Williams’ inability to play through injuries (ankle sprain, quad contusion) and the coaching staff’s lack of trust in him to be anything but a big-play threat.

2017: 10 games; 39 carries for 360 yards and four touchdowns, an average of 9.2 yards per carry. Two catches for 13 yards and a touchdown. Missed three straight games around the bye week in October.

QUOTE(S)
Irish head coach Brian Kelly put the impetus for Williams’ reduced action last season on his injuries and the counter-productive role they also played during the practice week.

“Last year was much more about staying healthy,” Kelly said before spring practice began. “We couldn’t really get into a good continuity with him because of injuries. It put him back in terms of his preparation.

“Most people just see you on Saturday when you have your helmet on and shoulder pads, and wonder, why isn’t he in the game? Well, there’s four other days leading up to it, and his inability to really practice and provide the kind of work necessary to get to Saturdays put him behind a little bit.”

As spring practice progressed and Williams stayed healthy, the focus turned to him developing the necessary skills to contribute in more situations than obvious running downs.

“It starts with Dexter and his ability to maintain himself in a position where he can be on the field for all three downs,” Kelly said at the end of March. “That’s pass protection, play-action fakes, all the little detail things that go along with playing the position.

“It’s been something that he’s been below the line on. He’s shown this spring he understands how important that is and he’s been above the line on those things — play-action fakes, protections, releases, all the nuances within the offense other than ‘Just give me the ball.’”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Williams did not lead Notre Dame in yards per carry (Adams at 5.9 yards), but his average of 5.1 was not to be scoffed at, though it was buoyed by a 59-yard score against Syracuse. Without that boost, Williams would have averaged only 3.71 yards per carry.

“But at no point last season did Williams make a misstep that would carry over to 2017. With Folston gone, someone will need to pick up those carries. Perhaps some of them go to Adams, but the rest will be split between Williams and Jones. Even if Jones get the majority of those reps, Williams’ total will go up, as well, bringing him to that 50-carry mark, if not higher.

“Irish coach Brian Kelly has often used multiple running backs. He has, at points, dabbled in using three. Furthermore, offensive coordinator Chip Long has a history of involving multiple running backs, keeping the ballcarriers fresh in his up-tempo scheme. There will certainly be opportunities for both Williams and Jones.

“If insisting on a prediction, let’s ballpark Williams’ junior year at 50 carries and 400 yards with five touchdowns. The more important item will be staying in the mix despite Jones’ rise. Injuries happen, particularly at running back. Having proven depth will be vital both for Notre Dame and for those making up the reserves.

“… It is within the realm of possibility Adams runs his way into the NFL Draft this season. It is not likely, but it could happen. In that instance, suddenly Williams would be featured far more in 2018.”

(Getty Images)

2018 OUTLOOK
When Kelly takes the podium tomorrow to preview preseason practice, the eligibility status of Williams might not be the first question thrown his way. That will likely be something mundane to build a rhythm. Then perhaps a general injury inquiry will come second. At that point, though, the dam will break. He will be asked.

Based off how Kelly responded to what may have been a similar situation a year ago with Kevin Stepherson, do not expect a cut and dry answer.

Speculation begins somewhere, even idle speculation. Thus, it would be decently-surprising if Williams lines up with the first-team Friday or sees action against Michigan in 31 days. Vague reports have long wondered if another transgression has put him on the wrong side of the University’s disciplinary protocols. Vague will likely continue to be the case until Notre Dame returns from North Carolina.

Williams also needs to play through injury. As much criticism as the coaching staff received for not playing Williams enough last year, it should be noted he missed three games due to bumps and bruises. If he had played in those, he would have exceeded last year’s “99-to-2” expectations of 50 carries and 400 yards with five touchdowns. The coaches cannot loosen up his quad after a hit from a helmet, and they cannot convince Williams to pick up a blitzing LSU linebacker a snap after he broke off a 31-yard run. That particular missed assignment cost the Irish 13 of the yards Williams had just gained, not to mention the lost down or the hit quarterback Ian Book took.

Williams’ absence both to start the season and in those situations would open a door not only for Jones, but also for sophomores Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis as well as freshmen Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister. Armstrong, in particular, could replicate some of Williams’ one cut-and-go abilities. Given he moved to the backfield from receiver, Armstrong’s route-running and pass-catching are already endorsed strengths. Pick up pass-blocking and suddenly Williams could become redundant. That is a bit of a leap, but one worth mentioning.

Williams’ big-play threat is hard to fathom if not seen for a couple seasons already. Even if removing his 66-yard dash to the Temple three-yard line last season, Williams still averaged 7.74 yards on his 38 other carries. Even in just eight or nine games, Williams should be able to rack up 500 yards this season, at least. Given his career average of 6.5 yards per carry, it is not hard to think he should average at least 5 with a heavier load, pointing to about 100 carries and another half dozen touchdowns.

DOWN THE ROAD
Williams’ speed alone will catch the NFL’s eyes, but even the fastest running backs at that level need to be effective in the passing game, as well. Williams has not shown that ability. Last season he caught two passes for 13 yards.

His speed will get him on a roster, even a few rosters, but until Williams shows more of an all-around game, his ceiling is not as high as his pedigree would indicate.


That makes 87 entries, ending this year’s rendition of “99-to-2.” It filled the summer, offered some refreshers as to how certain players got to where they are now and created reference points to look back on should the roster get turned upside down.

Tomorrow at noon ET, Brian Kelly will preview preseason practices from behind a podium. Come Friday, Notre Dame will take the practice field at Culver Academies, about an hour south of campus.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 34 Jahmir Smith, running back, early-enrolled freshman
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 31 Jack Lamb, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, sophomore
No. 29 Ovie Oghoufo, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 28 Nicco Fertitta, safety, senior
No. 27 Julian Love, cornerback, junior, second-team All-American
No. 25 Braden Lenzy, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 24 Nick Coleman, defensive back, senior
No. 23 Drue Tranquill, linebacker, two-time captain, fifth-year senior
No. 22 Asmar Bilal, rover, senior
No. 21 Jalen Elliott, safety, junior
No. 20 Shaun Crawford, nickelback, senior
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, running back, incoming freshman
No. 19 Justin Yoon, placekicker, senior
No. 19 Justin Ademilola, defensive end, incoming freshman
No. 18 Joe Wilkins, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 17 Isaiah Robertson, safety-turned-rover, sophomore
No. 16 Noah Boykin, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 15 D.J. Morgan, safety-turned-linebacker, junior
No. 15 Phil Jurkovec, quarterback, consensus four-star incoming freshman
No. 14 Devin Studstill, safety, junior
No. 13 Lawrence Keys, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 13 Paul Moala, local safety, incoming freshman
No. 12 DJ Brown, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 12 Ian Book, quarterback, junior
No. 11 Alohi Gilman, safety, Navy transfer
No. 10 Tariq Bracy, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 10 Chris Finke, receiver, senior, former walk-on
No. 9 Daelin Hayes, defensive end, junior
No. 8 Jafar Armstrong, running back/receiver, sophomore
No. 8 Donte Vaughn, cornerback, junior
No. 7 Brandon Wimbush, quarterback, senior
No. 7 Derrik Allen, consensus four-star safety, incoming freshman
No. 6 Tony Jones, running back, junior
No. 5 Troy Pride, cornerback, junior
No. 4 Te’von Coney, linebacker, senior
No. 4 Kevin Austin, consensus four-star receiver, incoming freshman
No. 3 Houston Griffith, consensus four-star safety, early-enrolled freshman
No. 3 Avery Davis, quarterback and running back and receiver
No. 2 Jordan Genmark Heath, safety-turned-linebacker, sophomore

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

OUTGOING TRANSFER
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

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A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

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Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.

Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019

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With the early enrollment of 10 freshmen, Notre Dame’s 2019 has begun. Usually this sparks a debate among outsiders pitting the advantages of early enrollment against the high school experiences lost. Not only is that an argument held by those far from both the program and high school, but it is also one missing the team-wide edge gained.

With 10 additional scholarship bodies this spring, the Irish will have 77 on hand, as of now. A total of 16 of those will be offensive linemen, including four mid-year arrivals. Whereas there are some springs in which Notre Dame struggles to field a second unit on its offensive line, this March and April will feature three complete units with a body to spare.

There will be just as many defensive lines, with three early enrollees bringing the total up to 14 scholarship players knocking around this spring, though the health of rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) may drop that a notch.

Either way, the Irish will have more depth on hand this spring than usual. The 10 freshmen spurning a semester of high school will still have their chance at added weight room time, meaningful spring repetitions and theoretical development, but those rewards can end up as much hypothetical as realized. It is nearly impossible to predict if running back Kyren Williams (pictured above) will be tangibly more developed in September because he got to South Bend in January. Linebacker Jack Kiser is unlikely to play much as a freshman in either scenario; punter Jay Bramblett is certainly going to no matter what. However, the opportunity to have thorough practices with up-front depth should only enhance the effects of this spring.

None of this will ever become exactly normal, even if Notre Dame has increased its early enrollee numbers from beginning in 2006 to seven last season and now these 10. Of this grouping, some are the first to make this exact leap in their high school’s history. Many private schools do not make such possible. For that matter, this influx speaks to this group in particular, not an overall trend.

It is, nonetheless, a group receiving many of the same praises Irish head coach Brian Kelly has offered in years past and will undoubtedly offer as long as he remains in this post.

“These guys are serious about what they are doing,” Kelly said in December’s early signing period. “They are signing up for getting a degree and winning a national championship. These are not silly guys. These are guys that are really focused on coming here to win a national championship.”

Of course, that is always Kelly’s stated goal. The national championship game may be 364 days from now, but that process has already begun anew.

The 10 early enrollees:
Offensive tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic
Offensive guard John Olmstead
Center Zeke Correll
Running back Kyren Williams
Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Linebacker Jack Kiser
Punter Jay Bramblett

Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame

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Notre Dame will need to replace only one receiver next season. Chase Claypool announced he will return for his senior season Thursday evening. This may have been long presumed, but less qualified players have entered the NFL draft with eligibility remaining in years past.

With the departure of Miles Boykin, Claypool will become the leading Irish target, the prime candidate to replace Boykin’s 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. A year ago, asking Claypool to put up numbers like that would have been a leap beyond reason, but after a 2018 season in which he accounted for 50 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns, Claypool becoming an offense’s best playmaker is fathomable beyond just pinning those hopes on the Canadian native’s athleticism.

Claypool’s career began as a special teams star, making 11 tackles in 2016, while catching only five passes for 81 yards. An inconsistent sophomore season followed, managing 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Those may sound like solid numbers, but they include only five catches in the season’s final four games and only one game with more than four catches all season.

Claypool had at least four catches in seven games this season, all started by junior quarterback Ian Book. With Book throwing, Claypool averaged 4.67 catches and 58.56 yards per game, highlighted by eight for 130 at Northwestern.

Claypool and current senior Chris Finke will presumably both start again, while one of a number of rising sophomores could step in either for Boykin on the boundary or for Claypool on the field side with Claypool possibly taking over boundary duties.

With five catches for 90 yards in his freshman campaign and a skill set similar to Boykin’s, Kevin Austin may be the front-runner for that starting role.