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Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s Running Backs

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How many running backs are too many running backs? In college football, the presumed answer has always focused on a lack of a limit, but Notre Dame may test that in 2020. With an incoming graduate transfer possibly on the horizon, the Irish could have as many as eight running backs on the roster by the fall.

Furthering that logjam, the one among them most logical to get the fewest carries is also arguably the most talented of the bunch. (That is not a prediction of the workload distribution, simply an observation of logic.)

Spring roster:
— Rising senior Jafar Armstrong, with two years of eligibility remaining
— Either Jahmir Smith or C’Bo Flemister or Kyren Williams
— Former quarterback, former cornerback, possibly future cornerback Avery Davis
— Fifth-year former walk-on Mick Assaf

Summer arrivals:
One would never know it by the heaping projections upon the incoming freshman running back, but if going by rivals.com rankings, Chris Tyree is the third-best offensive recruit in the class of 2020, at best, and perhaps as low as sixth. Yet, Tyree’s sub-4.4 speed short-circuits any conversation about his immediate impact into one with irrational expectations.

The fact of the matter is, Tyree does not break 180 pounds. Notre Dame knows as much and recognizes the natural limits it creates.

“We’ll develop him naturally from that and continue to build a coat of armor on him once he gets in here,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December.

Tyree may offer a facet to Notre Dame’s offense otherwise unavailable, but that will be available in only limited doses in 2020. A handful of carries at a time may nonetheless be effective, as long as he stays upright.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame gets the letter — Chris Tyree, consensus four-star RB

Depth Chart Possibilities:
The theme in the fall will be a position by committee, but spring lends itself more to pecking orders than it does to acknowledging shared workloads. As long as he is healthy, Armstrong is likely to stay atop that depth chart. When healthy, as rare as that has been, Armstrong has shown flashes of big-play potential, even if with a form too vertical to be durable.

Consider that the default, both in entering March and in reaching August, but the Irish have relative unknowns who may leapfrog Armstrong. The second line of the roster above — Smith or Flemister or Williams — should all get opportunities to impress this spring. Flemister brings the skillset most similar to Armstrong’s, though his hands are considered questionable, especially compared to the former receiver’s.

Smith and Williams overlap a bit as agile bowling balls, so to speak. Between the two, Smith is more proven, a productive goal-line back capable as a safety valve in the passing game, as well, while Williams’ 2019 faltered before it could begin after he dropped a pass in the flat in the season opener.

Criticizing a young back for faulty hands could naturally lead to hyping a veteran adept in the slot like Davis, but while Notre Dame is well-stocked at running back, it suffers from a dearth of cornerbacks. Perhaps Davis remains in the backfield moving forward, but playing time may await on the defensive side of the ball.

Assaf’s inclusion above is more a bookkeeping item than a usual mention of a former walk-on. Technically, his scholarship extends through only the spring, along with center Colin Grunhard’s. Not including those, the Irish currently have 86 expected scholarship players for the fall, needing to fall to 85 before heading to Dublin. If they tick below that number, then Assaf and Grunhard will be the first beneficiaries.

Beyond the nitty-gritty of Davis and Assaf, this spring’s best course of action for all involved and fans alike will be to wait well into April, if not August, before focusing much on which back takes the first carries each morning and which takes the fourth set. Notre Dame has a luxury with up to eight backs; time will suitably sort them out into the necessary subsets.

2019 statistically speaking:
Tony Jones: 144 carries for 857 yards and six touchdowns; 15 catches for 104 yards and another score.
Jahmir Smith: 42 carries for 180 yards and two touchdowns; two catches for 12 yards.
C’Bo Flemister: 48 carries for 162 yards and five touchdowns; one catch for 13 yards.
Jafar Armstrong: 46 carries for 122 yards and one touchdown; 13 catches for 97 yards.
Mick Assaf: Nine carries for 34 yards.
Kyren Williams: Four carries for 26 yards; one catch for three yards.
Avery Davis: Six carries for 10 yards; 10 catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns.

2019 departures:
Losing Jones may hurt Notre Dame, but his decision to try the NFL draft was a logical one, even if he ends up an undrafted free agent. The odds are Jones would not have needed to tout 144 carries next season, but adding another 100 to his career’s 415 before collecting a single paycheck would have been foolish.

He ends his career underappreciated, delivering two of the most pivotal touchdowns of the last two seasons: the 51-yard touchdown catch to seal an unbeaten regular season at USC in 2018 and an 84-yard stiff-arming run down the sideline against Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.

As always, questions are welcomed at insidetheirish@gmail.com.