SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Against No. 9 Stanford, Notre Dame will have to lean on a pair of freshman running backs who enrolled in June as fourth- and-fifth-string players.
That’s the reality of a season in which attrition has been a weekly occurrence in South Bend. Greg Bryant was set to be suspended, then ruled ineligible, then left campus in August. Tarean Folston tore his ACL in the first quarter of the season opener. C.J. Prosise had a concussion Nov. 7 against Pitt, then returned two weeks later only to suffer a high ankle sprain in the second quarter against Boston College. He’s in a walking boot this week and was characterized by coach Brian Kelly on Sunday as doubtful for Saturday’s game in Palo Alto.
So if Notre Dame does finish the season 11-1, it’ll be with freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams handling backfield duties in the Bay Area.
“You have to be able to control the football,” Kelly said. “We've got to keep their offense off the field. We can't be three and out and let their offense have a number of possessions. So running the football is extremely important to what we do in the success that we're going to have.”
Adams is farther along in his development than Williams, as he slid into a backup role behind Prosise after Folston’s Week 1 injury thanks in part because of his ability to pick up Notre Dame’s pass protection concepts. He’s proven to be a durable, explosive running back, too, blasting 98 yards for a score against Wake Forest and and gaining 589 yards on 85 carries (6.9 yards per carry) this season.
He only averaged 2.6 yards per carry against Boston College, though that’s a defense that hasn’t allowed much of anyone to run against it (Clemson’s Wayne Gallman, a thousand-yard rusher this year, averaged 2.8 yards per carry against the Eagles, for reference).
Stanford’s run defense isn’t close to as good as Boston College’s — which might be the best in the country — and is allowing an average of 4.14 yards per carry (55th among FBS teams). The Cardinal rank 113th in rushing IsoPPP+ — an advanced statistic that tracks explosiveness — so this is certainly a more beatable rush defense. That’s probably good news for Adams, who rushed for 288 yards on 37 carries against Pitt and Wake Forest.
“Josh has really turned himself into a true starter,” quarterback DeShone Kizer said. “He’s not a third down back, he’s not a specialty back, he can go out and carry the ball 30 times if you want him to.”
Williams has largely taken garbage-time carries this season, but could be called upon to take some important snaps Saturday at Stanford. Fourteen of his 18 carries came in blowouts against Texas and UMass, and the former four-star recruit has 76 yards and a touchdown so far.
“We've brought him along slowly,” Kelly said. “We've added more reps to his practice each and every week. We'll add more again this week. So he's going to have to play and he's going to have to contribute this weekend, And we think he's ready to contribute and help the football team win.”
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Notre Dame’s running back depth chart is an exercise in overcoming losses. After the reliable Folston’s injury, Prosise exploded as a 1,000-yard rusher. Adams scored a touchdown on his first collegiate carry and has the highest yards per carry average of a Notre Dame running back with 50 or more rushes since George Atkinson (7.1) in 2012. And Williams will now be the next man up in a game with massive playoff implications.
“I really believe that even though we’re down to our third and fourth, from the beginning of the season, running backs,” Kizer said, “that they’ve really developed themselves into starting characters.”