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

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - JANUARY 01: Running back Chris Tyree #25 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes the football against the Oklahoma State Cowboys during the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium on January 01, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cowboys defeated the Fighting Irish 37-35. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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Somehow Notre Dame has lost a two-time 1,000-yard rusher and is still strong at running back. In that respect, spring practices may not reveal too much at running back.

They will, however, give more opportunities to get to know new running backs coach Deland McCullough a bit, on and off the field. That nearly never happened, thanks to the NFL’s renewed pursuit of McCullough in the time period between his agreeing to join the Irish coaching staff and that becoming inked and official. Obviously, McCullough turned down those offers.

“For me, as a running back coach in the NFL, what was there left for me to do?” he said last month. “Especially when my goal was to come back to college.

“The NFL provided me an opportunity to become a better college coach. Along with that, I came back to position myself to continue to win and do great things, but (also) to position myself to become a head coach. That was a strong piece.”

McCullough’s head-coaching aspirations will take a backseat for now, but they should be kept in the back of mind for Notre Dame fans. At some point and possibly some point not too far in the future, McCullough hopes to take over his own program elsewhere.

Kyren Williams, Kyren Williams, Kyren Williams.

As much as the 2021 preseason conversation insisted the Irish would feature both Williams and Chris Tyree — conversation furthered multiple times by offensive coordinator Tommy Rees both last spring and in August — Tyree never became an offensive focal point in 2021. A turf toe injury that slowed him through the second half of the season played a role in that, but even before then, the two-back look was not the Notre Dame staple once expected.

The disjointed start for the Irish offensive line played a role in that, as well, but the pair of running backs were actually expected to lessen some of that stress. Instead, Tyree did not gain 100 yards from scrimmage in a single game. He averaged 38.2 yards from scrimmage through the season’s first six games, when he was still fully healthy.

Thus, Kyren Williams, Kyren Williams, Kyren Williams.

The literal and figurative leader of Notre Dame’s offense put the team on his back even when there were few holes for him to run through. In that same six-game stretch, the part of the season when the line struggled the most, Williams averaged 95 yards per game from scrimmage on a total of 113 touches.

As the Irish offense found its groove, that showed most in Williams’ production, increasing to 131.8 yards per game in the season’s second half on 133 total touches. His last-ever carry for Notre Dame was a touchdown jaunt at Stanford that gave Williams 1,000 yards rushing for a second straight year.

Without him in the Fiesta Bowl, the Irish offensive plan essentially acquiesced the running game, more in deference to Oklahoma State’s defensive front than anything else. Tyree ran for 18 yards on six rushes, while Logan Diggs added 29 yards on nine carries.

2021 STATS
Kyren Williams: 1,002 yards on 204 carries, a 4.9 yards per rush average, with 14 touchdowns; 359 yards on 42 catches with three more touchdowns.Chris Tyree: 222 yards on 56 carries, a 4.0 yards per rush average, with one touchdown; 248 yards on 24 catches with two more touchdowns.Logan Diggs: 230 yards on 52 carries, a 4.4 yards per rush average, with three touchdowns; 56 yards on six catches with one more touchdown.Audric Estime: 60 yards on seven carries, an 8.6 yards per rush average.C’Bo Flemister: 10 yards on three carries in four games.

Someone will emerge as Williams’ successor, but no matter who is atop the depth chart, there will be a healthy rotation among running backs in 2022. There is no longer a proven bellcow to take 200+ carries, even if that itself was a mild load by bellcow standards.

That may also be how McCullough prefers it.

“There’d be a big guy, there’d be a guy at what I consider a traditional size — 210, 215-pound guy — then there’d be a 200-pound guy who has a little bit of everything,” McCullough said in describing his ideal group of running backs. “We have guys who fit that.”

Indeed, Estime is listed at 228 pounds and he looks every bit of it. Diggs weighs 206 pounds, close to that “traditional” want from McCullough, and while Tyree is only 190 pounds, at 5-foot-9 ½, that becomes a compact package who can certainly do “a little bit of everything.”

There is also fifth-year C’Bo Flemister, though until he takes better than fourth-string snaps, it remains hard to believe he will be on the roster in 2022. Flemister went from doghouse to injury list to doghouse last season, an ignominious year for someone once expected to form a three-headed approach with Williams and Tyree. He is on the spring roster, and Notre Dame will assuredly have the roster space in the fall, but time may be needed to have a clearer picture with Flemister.

A former consensus four-star prospect, early-enrollee Jadarian Price could impress enough to be a part of the running back corps this fall, but it is more likely he simply takes advantage of mop-up opportunities. Listed at only 190 pounds, he will need to add weight before McCullough puts too much on the young shoulders.

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