Young running back group key to steadying Notre Dame’s offense

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When Notre Dame heads to Ohio State to open Marcus Freeman’s first season as a head coach, it will most likely trot out a sophomore with 35 career pass attempts as its starting quarterback, protected by a classmate at both tackle spots, the pair combining for 10 career starts.

In other words, despite a somewhat veteran offensive line, it would be hard to imagine a more inexperienced Irish tackle box on Sept. 3.

Though Notre Dame lost its two most experienced ball carriers following the 2021 season, its running back corps may aid Tyler Buchner, Joe Alt and Blake Fisher in their roles. At least, that may be Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ hope.

“Any time you can run the ball, it’s going to help the quarterback,” Rees said Saturday. “Our guys will have to be ready to go.”

Rees’ next three sentences focused on the standard a quarterback is expected to meet, insisting that will not be lowered for Buchner or junior Drew Pyne, but his initial point resonates louder. Short on receivers, Notre Dame will need to turn to its running backs to stabilize its offense early in 2022, even without Kyren Williams.

“We feel we have a lot of depth in that room and a lot of good players who can help us win games,” Rees said. “The next step for some of those guys is to have a voice. Kyren was a huge part of our leadership group, and we have to make sure those guys continue to have a presence when they have the opportunity.”

Asking rising junior Chris Tyree, rising sophomores Logan Diggs (pictured at top) and Audric Estime, or early-enrolled freshman Jadarian Price to fill the hole in leadership left by Williams is a bit rash. Williams seemingly provided the Irish an entire roster’s worth of emotion all on his own both on the sidelines and on the field. But as a whole, they may match his 1,000-yard seasons in the last two years.

Entering last season, the assumption was Tyree would take over for Williams once the latter headed to the NFL, and that may still be the greatest likelihood, but Tyree’s versatility could lead to him spending as much time lined up as a receiver as in the backfield, particularly since Notre Dame has only eight receivers on the roster.

“You have Chris, who is really a threat with his speed every time he touches it,” Rees said. “He’s good out of the backfield in the pass game. He’s probably a better inside runner than he gets credit for because of his speed. He thinks well inside and makes the right cut.”

Whether or not Tyree is a mainstay in the backfield, multiple running backs are needed. Enter Diggs, who proved himself plenty capable in his debut season (52 carries in eight games for 230 yards and three touchdowns). Rees boldly drew comparisons between Diggs and Williams, typical spring fodder, with the reality being Diggs may be the closest thing to a complete back, and in that regard, a comparison to Williams makes sense.

“You have Logan, who is more of your traditional slasher, stop-and-start, short-area quickness,” Rees said. “He is 6-foot-2, 200-however many pounds and can deliver a blow.”

Diggs’ emergence in 2021 was undeniable and notable, but as much for what it could mean in 2022 as for what it meant last year. Buchner played well in his situational roles, the evidence that the Irish would have a reliable running back in 2022 was as important as the concept of a dual-threat quarterback could be.

Yet, one do-everything running back and one splitting time at receiver is not enough for a modern backfield, especially when that backfield may be needed as the early-season constant. Enter 5-foot-11 ½, 228-pound Estime.

“You have Audric, who is obviously a grown man,” Rees said. “You have your bully in there, who can grind out tough yards, be physical and impose his will.”

At some point, Estime will need to do more than impress simply by putting on his shoulder pads—errr, stepping on the field.

For the time being, the idea of a rock with legs properly supplements a theoretical Tyree-Diggs duo. If all remain healthy, three could be enough running backs for a season, but this is football, assuming health is impractical. It may be enough to steady Notre Dame’s offense in Columbus, but it could be a concern even by the end of September.

Hence the Irish considered two running backs in the recruiting class of 2022. That haul ended up being only one, but springtime hype suggests Price may be ready to play in September.

“Very focused, very detailed, and he’s put together,” Rees said. “He’s smaller, but he’s built up in a way he can handle playing here. You’ve seen a smoothness and good feet. He learns it easy.”

Rees repeatedly compared Price to how Tyree presented as a freshman, a season in which Tyree took 73 carries for 6.8 yards per rush. That kind of readiness would exceed Diggs’ output last year, perhaps giving Notre Dame enough of a backfield to buttress Buchner’s starting debut, a piece of Irish optimism before Buchner is even named the starter.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, moving forward without Kyren Williams