Leftovers & Links: Kyren Williams’ collegiate close more than stats and highlights, but leadership

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During Notre Dame’s idle week in mid-October, a certain ND on NBC Podcast discussed who would break out for the Irish in the second half of the season, and a certain “Inside the Irish” writer cheated in his answer, citing an offensive player already worthy of star status, even in a struggle of a September.

Kyren Williams is going to have a month,” I said in a conversation beginning at the 12:15 mark above. “Be it the next four weeks or the last four weeks of the season, Kyren Williams will not have his presumably final year at Notre Dame be some 600- or 700-yard season. He is going to dominate a few games, just the way the offensive line is coming together, just the way the upcoming defenses are that much worse than Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Purdue and Toledo.

“Kyren Williams will have a moment before this year is over, and I’m going to argue multiple moments to put together a month.”

Sometimes you are so right, you are wrong. And I was wrong. Because I never saw this coming.

I did not see Williams having an opportunity to be actively and openly frustrated about rushing for only 199 yards against North Carolina. I did not see him taking on such a leadership role that he would be cited by Notre Dame’s defense. I did not see press conferences discussing the synonyms of “heart” and “Energizer bunny” and “pulse.”

Williams’ role on the No. 10 Irish (7-1) has become more than anyone could have expected.

“It’s pervasive,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Williams’ leadership after Notre Dame’s 44-34 win against North Carolina. “It’s not only the offense, it’s the defense. It’s everybody who watches him play.

“I’m not going to tell you that he stands in front of the room and talks to the team about leadership techniques, but his leadership, by the way he does things, puts him in a role as captain.”

In two weeks, Williams went from a ho-hum season that might reach 700 yards (370 rushing yards through six games) to one that could encroach on 1,200 rushing yards if Williams plays the bowl game, and given everything he has shown about his leadership style, Williams may be the last player who would opt out of a bowl game to protect his draft standing. (Though, no one should fault any player who does so, including Williams if he so chooses.)

The defenses awaiting Williams the next four weeks may make that 1,200 mark an attainable one and perhaps he will get another shot at a 200-yard game. Four of Notre Dame’s first five opponents rank in the top 32 of defensive Expected Points Added per rush, per cfb-graphs.com. Three of them rank in the top 34 in yards per rush against.

Navy and Georgia Tech are respectable in those regards — Nos. 39 and 33 in EPA/rush against and tied at No. 66 in yards per rush against — but Virginia and Stanford are both atrocious, Nos. 109 and 118 in the former category and Nos. 125 and 114 in the latter.

Combine those soft fronts with the improving Irish offensive line, and more should await Williams. As would be expected of a leader, he is the first to offer that praise to his primary blockers.

“I feel like this is what I’ve been talking about the past three weeks since Virginia Tech,” Williams said. “I’ve seen it since Virginia Tech. We’ve been going upwards running the ball, confidence, mindset, identity of who we are as an offense and why we call ourselves Big O. It’s there. It’s coming along. We’re all in for it and we’re all working to get there. We know each and every week we have to get better.”

Williams is breaking out this month, alright, but it likely will not be a four-week stretch. It will be a six-week one. And he will not simply be correcting the possibility of a 600-yard season, but rather rushing for 600 yards in just six weeks. And those aspects may not be the most impressive parts of the close of Williams’ collegiate career.

“That’s just who he is as a person,” quarterback Jack Coan said of his backfield partner’s leadership. “Ever since I got here, just energy all the time. It’s something I strive to have and be like. An extremely hard worker, and on the field, he’s never going to be denied. He is just an amazing competitor.”

BUT YES, EXPECT THIS TO BE HIS LAST YEAR
Williams has not said anything publicly, but he is a running back and no other position may have a shorter shelf life in football. Williams should go pro after this season, no matter his draft grade.

And Notre Dame fans should do nothing but thank him for putting the team on his back the last few weeks. He has turned Power Five football into his own personal high school highlight reel. When asked if he had ever put together a run like that 91-yarder against the Tar Heels, Williams argued for many.

“I would say all my high school runs were definitely more exciting than that one, because in high school, I just ran all around the field,” he said. “That was probably my most exciting college run, for sure. It really felt like one of those high-school runs, coming back all the way across the field and hitting it where it wasn’t supposed to go.”

Watching his high school highlights, it is an apt comparison.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame, Kyren Williams stiff arm North Carolina upset attempt, 44-34
Highlights — Notre Dame 44, North Carolina 34: Kyren Williams’ TD, DJ Brown’s interception and Jack Coan’s efficiency
Things We Learned: Efficient, up-tempo offense here to stay for Notre Dame, just in time
Notre Dame ranks No. 10 in Playoff committee reveal; Cincinnati outside looking in

OUTSIDE READING
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2021-2022 Notre Dame leprechauns inspire Irish, spread joy
Bowls send letter to schools arguing against on-campus games in expanded College Football Playoff
Top 25 prospects, best by position in Mel Kiper’s Big Board, including Kenny Pickett, Kayvon Thibodeaux
Games, races and storylines to watch in college football’s most exciting month yet
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