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Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, led by two dual-threats

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Notre Dame may seem unproven and inexperienced atop the running back depth chart, but the reality is the Irish return more production among their top two running backs than they did even a year ago. Nonetheless, Notre Dame averaged 193.46 rushing yards per game last season (sacks adjusted). Keeping that in mind should mitigate concerns about junior Jafar Armstrong and senior Tony Jones, the leading duo in some order.

Spring roster:
— Armstrong, a former receiver with one injury-hampered season at running back under his belt.
— Jones, trusted by the Irish coaching staff in all facets of the position.
— Junior Avery Davis, a former quarterback, largely removed from the game plan in the second half of 2018, recording just six touches in the final seven games.
— Sophomores C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith, each having preserved a year of eligibility.
— Early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams.

Summer arrivals:
— Incoming freshmen Kendall Abdur-Rahman, a high school quarterback who could end up at running back or receiver, though the recruiting focus was on receiver. Simply enough, a preseason switch is readily feasible.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
If looking at 2018 through a per-game lens, Armstrong played much better than Jones. A knee infection sidelined Armstrong for three games in the middle of the season, and a sprained ankle limited him even after that, particularly at Northwestern. Jones, meanwhile, stayed on the field the entire season, though minor injuries undoubtedly plagued him at points, as well.

Factoring in any game each appeared in to any extent, Armstrong averaged 7.2 rushes for 38.3 yards per game and Jones took 6.4 carries for 30.2 yards per game. Adding in receiving stats raises Armstrong’s advantage: 8.6 touches for 54.2 yards per game compared to 6.8 touches for 42.2 yards per game.

Given the fluke nature of Armstrong’s extended absence in late September and early October, there is no need to attach injury concerns to him yet. Thus, Armstrong will presumably end up Notre Dame’s starting back, though Irish head coach Brian Kelly will assuredly describe it as a competition with no needed frontrunner, all the while praising Armstrong’s ability to never stop going full speed in practice.

The better question is who will emerge as the third back, a vital designation given the nature of the position. Consider Flemister the most likely, with Smith challenged only by Williams’ spring success, Davis something of an afterthought in practical concerns.

Why factor in those receiving stats so prominently?
Both Armstrong and Jones have shown big-play abilities in the passing game. The former arrived in South Bend as a receiver, switching positions only after three backs left the program last offseason (Josh Adams to the NFL; C.J. Holmes and Deon McIntosh dismissed). Jones’ bona fides became more proven than potential against Vanderbilt, when Brandon Wimbush twice found him for chunk plays on wheel routes, including a crucial 32-yard gain on the game-winning touchdown drive.

His big-play abilities in the passing game found their place in Notre Dame lore with his 51-yard touchdown at USC to seal a berth in the College Football Playoff. Sure, Jones nearly dropped the pass, needing a brief bobble to properly underscore the dramatics of moment, but the end result of the play was the same: six points and a 12-0 regular season.

Why so cynical of Davis?
The former quarterback handled his position change with aplomb last spring, saying the right things in such a sincere manner it could be interpreted as only mature humility and an understanding of the Irish depth chart at quarterback. Davis was not going to break through there, he might at running back.

Then he did not play in five of the season’s final six games. Offensive coordinator Chip Long never found a solid way to use Davis’ theoretical shiftiness.

Now this is where new running backs coach Lance Taylor may come in. He has a track record of developing backs, both in the ground game and in the aerial attack. If Davis stays/surges past the sophomore duo this spring, that may be a positive reflection of Taylor’s influence more than it is a reason to worry about the sophomores. If Davis does not, however, then his contributing career may soon be relegated to minimal at best.

2018 statistically speaking:
Dexter Williams: 158 carries for 995 yards and 12 touchdowns; 13 catches for 334 yards and one score.
Jones: 83 carries for 392 yards and three touchdowns; six catches for 157 yards and one score.
Armstrong: 72 carries for 383 yards and seven touchdowns; 14 catches for 159 yards.
Davis: 22 carries for 70 yards; five catches for 30 yards.
Smith: Six carries for 28 yards; one catch for 14 yards.
Flemister: One carry for no gain.

2018 departures:
Say what you will about Dexter Williams, and for a long time this space did, but his falling five yards short of 1,000 yards in a suspension-shortened season was too bad. He did not inherently deserve the distinction, but his 2018 was so stellar, it should be long remembered. Lacking that one last gain will keep it from certain lists and recognition in years to come.

Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes flipped from a pipe dream to an increasing likelihood when Williams exploded through Virginia Tech to the tune of 178 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries, including a workmanlike, tackle-breaking 31-yard dash down the sideline to add an exclamation point to that 45-23 shellacking.

What comes next for Williams will begin to come into focus tomorrow (Friday), when he runs the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, a time he can improve upon if necessary at Notre Dame’s Pro Day on March 20.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Kyren Williams

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