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Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Nevada v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish breaks a tackle while running with the ball in the second half against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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Two months ago, the question was would Notre Dame have a reliable backup behind junior running back Josh Adams. It would have been quite a leap to have expected Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long to face the question of, “Is it difficult to get three running backs involved?” Yet, Long answered that query the day before the Blue-Gold Game closed spring practice.

Only Adams entered with much experience. His classmate Dexter Williams had 39 carries for 200 yards and three touchdowns last season (and seven for 21 and one in his freshman campaign), but by no means does that qualify as college-tested. Adams, meanwhile, already has 275 rushes for 1,768 yards and 11 touchdowns in his career.

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No matter what depth emerged behind Adams this spring, his numbers would rise. Sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., could have appeared to mimic every one of his position coach’s college moves, and Adams would remain the starter.

With early enrollee C.J. Holmes around, as well, Long and running backs coach Autry Denson had a full stable of options to start the spring as they looked for Adams’ primary backup. Rushing would not be their only metric. Naturally, pass protection is a vital piece of a college back’s skillset, but Long also has a track record of incorporating his backfield as receivers. In one season at Memphis, Long’s backs caught 51 passes for 477 yards and five touchdowns. By comparison, the Irish running backs caught 33 passes for 275 yards and one score in 2016.

Much time and energy has been spent relaying praises of junior tight end Alizé Mack this spring. The only player on the Irish roster to receive close to that many platitudes the last two months would be Jones. In no uncertain terms, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly made it clear Jones is ready to lead the way, with or without any college experience (he’s without), with or without two upperclassmen ahead of him competing for carries (it’s with).

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said halfway through spring practices. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.”

Jones cemented that standing in the spring finale with eight rushes for 45 yards. That same day, though, Williams broke nine runs for 96 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown. The question of too many talented backs was posed to Long the morning before, but the Blue-Gold Game underscored its logic.

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“It’s not difficult, because we run them a lot,” Long said. “It’s who can stay out there the longest, really. We utilize two of them a lot of the time, so having depth there is critical so we can keep them all fresh throughout the game. We’re pushing a lot of plays, and it’s going to start with the run. Keeping each other fresh helps a lot.”

Nonetheless, it will still start with Adams.

“You want to start with a guy like Josh, there’s no doubt about it,” Long said. “Then you’ve got Dexter and Tony Jones and [sophomore] Deon [McIntosh], guys who can come out there, change the pace of play.

“Josh has elite speed, but he has size. Then you bring another guy in who might be a little bit different, find out what they do well. That’s hard for the defense. You can’t have enough running backs in this offense. There’s no question.”

That change of pace may be the primary reason Williams sees a bit more action than Jones come fall. The disparity between the former and Adams is much greater than between Jones and Adams, theoretically increasing Williams’ effectiveness.

McIntosh moved from receiver to the backfield during the spring when Holmes sprained a shoulder, cutting short his first foray into college practices. It is unfortunate he lost the opportunity for the full slate of early conditioning and reps, but Holmes was always unlikely to see action at running back in 2017.

RELATED READING: Holmes out for spring; Jones shining

As for catching the ball, Long indicated all three of Adams, Williams and Jones are capable in that arena, but Jones may be the “most natural” of them. If insisting on reading into that, it could present added opportunities for Jones on third-and-mediums.

Consensus four-star running back Markese Stepp (Cathedral High School; Indianapolis) committed to the Irish class of 2018 back in June. At 6-foot, 205 pounds, he fits the exact mold of running back Long said he prefers.

“I like to have variety,” Long said. “I like to have a big back. I like to have a guy I can put out there with receiver skills and we can put him in the backfield. All of them close to 190 to 210, and have a bigger back, as well.

“We like to have variety, and then find out what those guys can do and put them in a position to make plays.”

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