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Where Notre Dame was, is, and what it needs: Running backs

Syracuse Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams (2) scores a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Syracuse, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Howard Simmons)


This discussion will shift greatly a month from now. As soon as Notre Dame’s Playoff run ends, one way or another, the Irish running back room will revert back to what it was in August.

Treading water until the return of a flashy big-play threat who had never shown any semblance of consistency, a reputation underscored by his unspoken four-week suspension to start the season.

The Irish could not wait for senior Dexter Williams to return from that forced sabbatical, and with sophomore Jafar Armstrong and junior Tony Jones around, they did not need to, but neither represented the same potential as Williams.

The duo combined for 111 total yards against Michigan before Armstrong broke loose a bit against Ball State (66 rushing yards, 61 receiving) and Jones did so a week later against Vanderbilt (118 rushing, 56 receiving). They kept things afloat, and that has been forgotten due to Williams’ eventual eight-week explosion. It should not have been. Considering how stilted Notre Dame’s offense was in those two one-possession victories, it is not hard to fathom a loss if not for those respective dual-threats out of the backfield.

To a degree, such an absence was expected; those showings the welcome Irish surprise. Armstrong is a converted receiver, a first-time contributor. Jones proved steady when healthy in 2017, but he had never produced more than 59 yards in a game, let alone nearly triple that.

Devin Bush, Jafar Armstrong

Notre Dame wide receiver Jafar Armstrong (8) scores a touchdown in front of Michigan linebacker Devin Bush (10) in the first half of an NCAA football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)


“Jafar is developing each and every week,” head coach Brian Kelly said following the 24-16 win against Ball State. “You saw his versatility again. … He’s learning a lot every week. There’s new experiences for him each and every game that he plays in. This is just accumulating reps for him, game reps, learning as he goes. He’s got some really good skills.

“Tony Jones, we just need him in there, consistency, play at that high level. I think he can be an outstanding back. We just got to get that on a more consistent basis.”

That was the world Notre Dame lived in for four weeks, one where the running backs needed to learn, needed to be consistent. Not one where they ripped off 45-yard touchdown runs against a Stanford front ...

As Williams did on his first carry of the season, and he has hardly looked back since. Not much more time needs to be spent on what the senior has done in a truncated season. Averaging 6.63 yards per rush, Williams gained 941 yards and scored 12 touchdowns in eight games. Both Pittsburgh and Northwestern bottled him up, but that came at the cost of their passing defenses.

The conversation around Williams has focused on his return from suspension, the second notable misstep in his career, complementing injuries and lackluster pass blocking. That conversation is warranted. But so is realizing just how much Williams progressed in on-field ways this season. He had never before touched the ball more than 10 times in a game. His 2018-low came against the Panthers, 15 touches for 33 yards. That durability and reliability comes from more than a simple flip of the proverbial switch.

And it pales in comparison to the 202 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries Williams put together against Florida State.

“His attention to detail now is so much better,” Kelly said the day after that performance. “His working out, his taking care of his body, all the things that championship athletes have to do, Dexter is doing that. Now put the athleticism in front of that, and you’re not surprised that he’s having the kind of success that he’s having.”

As much as Williams can muster, and then some from Armstrong, plus a bit of physicality from Jones. And yes, that is a lot to ask.

Going by numbers beyond sheer yardage allowed per game, the Tigers have the best rush defense in the country. As it pertains to Williams and his penchant for breaking long runs, Clemson limits rushing explosiveness better than 129 other teams in FBS. Note: There are a total of 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

The Irish are going to struggle against the Tigers front. Any chances at chunk rushing yardage will be few and far between. In a way, the afternoon of Dec. 29 may need a heavy dosage of Jones’ bruising style to loosen up the defense before Williams can then chip away at it.

The best rush defense Notre Dame has faced with Williams included has been Northwestern (No. 19 by advanced metrics). The Irish gained 132 yards on 37 carries (kneel downs adjusted) against the Wildcats, numbers that may need to be satisfactory against Clemson. Before junior quarterback Ian Book’s game-clinching 23-yard touchdown run in the final minutes, the longest Notre Dame rush was Williams for 19 yards.

To get to 132 yards without relying on big plays showed how devoted Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long was to the run that evening along Lake Michigan. Such stubbornness kept Northwestern honest, eventually allowing the passing game to open up.

Expecting more than a hard-nosed and frustrating effort against possibly the most-talented defensive line in a generation is to pin hopes on the exceedingly unlikely. A serviceable showing, though, would keep Notre Dame in the mix at the end of the month.

Without Williams next season, the thoughts will again return to the two-headed possibilities of Armstrong and Jones, with current freshmen C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith their backups.

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