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Where Notre Dame was & is: Running backs

Clemson v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 07: Running back Kyren Williams #23 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after his first quarter touchdown against the Clemson Tigers at Notre Dame Stadium on November 7, 2020 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame’s running backs and quarterbacks have been on opposite sides of the transitional cycle natural to college football. While the Irish had confidence, certainty and stability returning in 2020 with Ian Book leading the offense, they had no idea who would supplement him in the backfield.

Now Book is training for the NFL draft and the quarterback room is filled with questions and vague answers as Notre Dame’s offense will instead focus and feature Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree.

Maybe the outside presumption was the Irish would highlight Jafar Armstrong in 2020, the receiver-turned-running back having shined early in 2018 and clearly a playmaker when at his best. But that outside presumption had no idea the damage seemingly done by Armstrong’s torn abdomen in 2019.

Admittedly, not seeing any spring or preseason practices limited that insight, but logic should have also recognized its possibility. A running back relying on agility and speed will be greatly impaired by tearing his core muscles.

And then Irish head coach Brian Kelly listed Armstrong fifth when discussing running backs two weeks before Notre Dame’s 2020 opener. That was not a literal depth chart, but Kelly’s stream of consciousness ended up looking much like 2020’s usage order. And at the top of both …

“Kyren Williams has really emerged as somebody that we feel right now has gained an advantage as the top back right now,” Kelly said on Sept. 1. “He’s going to require some assistance at that position from a number of other guys, we’re not going to feature just one back, but Kyren has done a great job.”

Kelly’s praise was met with muted response. It was hard to expect too much from a sophomore back with two carries and one catch in his freshman season, essentially removed from the contributing rotation after a dropped pass in the 2019 opener.

And then came a season so dynamic it warranted tweets from LeBron James, all-conference honors and perhaps some 2021 preseason All-American buzz. Williams finished 2020 with 1,125 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns along with 35 catches for 313 yards and another score. When looking at those numbers and subconsciously comparing them to other strong seasons from the likes of Dexter Williams or Josh Adams, realize Williams played only 12 games rather than the usual 13.

Book was the steadying force for the Irish, the one that drove them down the field when it mattered most against No. 1 Clemson in November, but it was Williams who made the biggest and most plays, including his 65-yard touchdown run on the first official snap against the Tigers.

Williams will once again be backed up primarily by rising sophomore Chris Tyree, no longer someone who Kelly will boast “has been tougher than was advertised” as he did in September. Tyree showed that on the field, Kelly does not need to tell anyone anymore. Averaging 6.8 yards on 73 rushes will establish that reputation.

Both more than competent in the passing game, as well, Williams and Tyree may share the field in Notre Dame’s 2021 offense, further evidence of how much it will depend on the running backs while incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan’s experience. And in doing so, the Irish can remain a physical team, even if replacing four starting offensive linemen.

“They’re both willing to run inside the tackles, Kelly said in December. “If you look at Kyren in particular, his rushing yards after first contact are pretty impressive. So for a guy that in some circles you may say he’s not very big, he plays big from that perspective.

“Then Chris Tyree, what we’ve been very impressed with is his patience and ability. … Those have been two differentiators for both of those guys that have impressed us.”

With Armstrong off to Illinois and Jahmir Smith transferring to Appalachian State, only rising senior C’Bo Flemister remains of known commodities, at some points in 2020 seeming to push to make the backfield a three-back approach.

In other words, 12 months have turned a position of question and possible concern into Notre Dame’s greatest offensive strength.

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