Friday at 4: Reasons for Notre Dame’s rushing struggles go back years

19 Comments

It is not Tony Jones’ fault he was the only running back Notre Dame could trust at Georgia last weekend, and given the circumstances, his performance should not be criticized for even a moment.

Yes, Jones finished with only 21 rushing yards on nine carries, adding 24 receiving yards on four catches. Those are not glamorous numbers.

Yet, they were the best the Irish were going to get from a running back, not to mention Jones was impeccable in pass protection, a constant since his first appearance in the 2017 Blue-Gold Game. (Jones then credited his father for forcing him to play fullback in pee-wee football.)

“Tony Jones did a terrific job,” head coach Brian Kelly said after Notre Dame’s 23-17 loss. “We’re asking way too much from him, way too much. We need some help for him.”

That help will begin to arrive this weekend from sophomore Jahmir Smith, returning from a sprained toe, but aside from a few short-yardage carries, it is unlikely the Irish would have called on Smith much in Athens. Even then, only one Notre Dame drive stalled in an -and-short situation, a 4th-and-2 when a misfired snap got by senior quarterback Ian Book. The Irish probably would not have tried to run for those two long yards, no matter who was available.

As much as Notre Dame would like to change that mindset this weekend, consider it unlikely.

“The offensive line did a really good job against a very difficult defense to handle in terms of pass protection,” Kelly said. “But we have to find a way to run the football, too, and we’re going to have to have that challenge against Virginia.”

Suffice it to say, the dropoff from the Bulldogs’ rush defense to the Cavaliers’ is genuinely only a slight one. Yards on the ground will be hard to come by once again, no matter how well-rounded and serviceable Jones is and no matter how low a shoulder Smith may drop (if 100 percent full-go).

This is simply an Irish reality in 2019, and not because junior Jafar Armstrong tore his abdominal muscle, keeping him sidelined for at least two more games. The underlying problem traces back much further than that.

In the four recruiting classes making up the core of Notre Dame’s current roster, six running backs signed with the Irish, only one considered a four-star prospect by rivals.com. Two of them, including that four-star, were dismissed from Notre Dame following the 2017 season.

That left four running backs signed in four years:

— Jones, an increasingly-reliable contributor with a very high floor but an equally low ceiling.
— Smith, now with an injured wrist and foot, not inherently a speed option in the first place.
— Sophomore C’Bo Flemister, struggling in the passing game and overall inexperienced.
— Freshman Kyren Williams, utterly inexperienced.

Add in junior Avery Davis, former-quarterback turned former-defensive back, who is neither physical enough nor athletic enough to compete against elite caliber defenses like Georgia’s or presumably Virginia’s; and Armstrong, a former receiver still new enough to the position it is fair to wonder if he has learned to run lower to the ground, simply because there has not been an opportunity to see such.

This is an Irish reality undercutting College Football Playoff hopes, through both a lack of quality and an absence of quantity. Playoff teams have offenses capable through the air and on the ground because they have running back after running back who can churn for yardage, even if not consistently called upon. Georgia alone may have had four or five running backs who would currently start at Notre Dame.

He was talking about the Bulldogs’ defensive secondary, but Irish senior receiver Chase Claypool summarized the broader issue in the bowels of Sanford Stadium.

“They’re deep, and that’s good for them, because they’re going to need that going through the season,” Claypool said. “Every team needs that.”

Notre Dame does not have it at running back, and that is not the fault of Jones. His best last weekend kept the Irish in the game against a bona fide Playoff contender.

And the lack of depth is not compounded by the Irish coaches not trusting the young backs; the risk-reward ratio of tossing them in against Georgia’s defensive front made it an inadvisable tactic to take.

“We were, obviously, a little hesitant to put them out in the atmosphere at Georgia,” Kelly said. “We have to rely on those guys.”

In time, Notre Dame inevitably will, though it may not come this weekend. To create a few more rushing yards, the Irish may once again turn to speedy receivers on end-arounds, namely sophomores Lawrence Keys and Braden Lenzy. That was the hope between the hedges before Lenzy suffered a concussion in practice the week beforehand.

In time, Notre Dame may not need these younger backs to shine, but that time is a ways off. First-year running backs coach Lance Taylor has already landed a commitment from the No. 2 all-purpose back in the recruiting class, per rivals.com. Chris Tyree is very much the kind of ball carrier the Irish have lacked in recruiting for a while.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame lands commitment of all-purpose back Chris Tyree

Those recruiting shortcomings limited Notre Dame at Georgia and may do so again this weekend, not the performance of Jones or the lack of snaps for the underclassmen.

Getting to December with Tyree’s commitment still solid will be the soonest those mistakes can be rectified.