Notre Dame does not have any choice; it will need to establish a running game without its expected top back. Doing so will require more than senior Tony Jones, even if he does finally produce on Saturdays as he has in practice for years.
The first name behind Jones made itself clear during Monday’s 35-17 victory at Louisville when sophomore Jahmir Smith (pictured at top) scored twice on three red-zone carries, part of his eight rushes for 24 yards. But Smith is limited, at least for the time being, by a wrist injury requiring a cast. His effectiveness in the passing game will be minimal.
Insert freshman Kyren Williams. On the surface, that seems like a reach. He touched the ball on offense just once against the Cardinals, failing to pull in a screen pass that hit him directly in the numbers. He was immediately brought to the sideline, where Irish head coach Brian Kelly sought him out.
Williams had already returned a kickoff for 16 yards and fair caught another. That would be the extent of his work on opening night, a game Notre Dame struggled with enough, it could not much afford a freshman’s jitters.
But Williams’ work as an early enrollee and this preseason give reason to expect more out of him with an extended opportunity moving forward.
“Kyren is very conscientious,” Irish running backs coach Lance Taylor said in August. “That is the one word I would use. Football is important to him. He’s constantly asking the right questions. He wants to be good at it and he works at it. Everything I say, he writes down.
“You’ll tell him once and he makes the correction. He’s not what I call a repeat offender. He’s a guy who makes a mistake once, you correct him and then he comes back and corrects that mistake himself.”
No camera angle can genuinely confirm Williams looked ahead to a defender five yards away as the on-target screen pass came his way, but it was a rather apparent mistake. By Taylor’s logic, working on that a bit this idle week should put Williams into a position to contribute moving forward.
That will not completely mitigate junior Jafar Armstrong’s reported injury absence for a month or two, but it would allow offensive coordinator Chip Long to reincorporate the two-back sets he most enjoys. On Notre Dame’s first snap Monday, two backs technically got the start, with Armstrong lined up wide and Jones in the backfield. That opening drive — the six-play, 75-yard dissection — included two backs on every play.
1st-and-10: Jones in the backfield, Armstrong out wide running a deep route to open space for senior quarterback Ian Book to run.
1st-and-10: Jones in the backfield, Armstrong out wide. Jones rushes for nine yards.
2nd-and-1: Both Jones and Armstrong in the backfield. Armstrong rushes for five yards with Jones blocking.
1st-and-10: Jones in the backfield, Armstrong out wide. Armstrong with a 16-yard catch on a crossing pattern. (This appears to have been the play that injured Armstrong. See below.)
1st-and-goal: Armstrong in the backfield, Jones out wide. Armstrong rushes for five yards.
2nd-and-goal: Smith in the backfield, Jones out wide. Smith rushes for three yards and a touchdown.
To some degree, these sets are a band-aid for Long while without junior tight end Cole Kmet and junior receiver Michael Young, but they are also a long-time preference of his. Smith provides a bruising ability, but for the 60 yards between the 20s, Long will likely turn to Williams more often, provided he does not drop any more screen passes.
Williams and freshman safety Kyle Hamilton (four tackles, two pass breakups) may have had the most notable debuts of the rookie class, but they were hardly the only ones at Louisville. Defensive tackle Jacob Lacey made a tackle, and punter Jay Bramblett averaged 39.3 yards on six punts while not giving up a yard of return and placing two inside the 20-yard-line.
Linebacker Jack Kiser also saw special teams action, an area in which Kelly expects Kiser to be “a difference-maker.”
Six other freshmen made the first travel roster of the year:
Defensive tackle Howard Cross: Pertinent to interior depth and someone ripe for mop-up relief.
Defensive end Isaiah Foskey: Expected to play at some point simply based on Kelly’s praise thus far.
Cornerback KJ Wallace: Should taste the first moments of mop-up duty because he may be needed for depth before the season is over.
Offensive tackle Andrew Kristofic: If injuries rifle through Notre Dame’s line, Kristofic may suddenly be needed, so some work in a blowout will come before long, a la Jarrett Patterson last year.
Quarterback Brendon Clark: The third quarterback always travels.
Kicker Harrison Leonard: As does the backup kicker.
As far as where else injury help may have shown itself Monday, sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble’s three catches not only went for 46 yards, but they also gained three first downs. (Touchdowns count as first downs statistically.)
It was not all good from Tremble. He struggled with his blocking in the run game, but that may not have been unexpected from the Irish coaches. Once Kmet’s collarbone broke, Notre Dame’s approach to using its tight ends changed.
“We moved the tight end around a little bit more,” Kelly said of a mid-August practice. “They’re not in line quite as much, but we can play in line.
“Tommy Tremble is an outstanding athlete. You just play a little bit different with him. But go ahead, try to cover him. He’s a wide receiver, but he’s also 230 pounds, is as physical as anybody we’ve got.”
Monday’s lights were figuratively and literally bright, and they may have played a part in Williams’ flub or Tremble’s missed blocks, but those were not complete shocks based off the preseason. The trick now will be using those moments to educate them further.
In that respect, the victory may have been a head coach’s imperfect ideal: A win, but not one that instills cockiness. Rather, a win with plenty of film to correct during a long week.
This is a slow week, 12 days between Notre Dame games, only one game into the season. Help liven it up with a question or two: firstname.lastname@example.org
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