Where Notre Dame was, is & will be: Running backs
If a position competition lacking clarity is acceptable anywhere on the football field, it is at running back. Even in 2017 and 2018, when Notre Dame had star workhorse running backs, their backups still carried plenty.
When Josh Adams dabbled in a Heisman campaign in 2017, his 206 rush attempts set the bar, but the next three running backs had 148 combined carries. When Dexter Williams made his suspension an afterthought with a dominant showing in 2018, he had only three more rushes than the next two backs.
No one needs to rush (pun intended) clarifying who the lead Irish running back will be in 2020. That decision does not need to come to light this spring, not this summer, not before Notre Dame heads to Dublin.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Entering 2019, some of the optimism around the Irish offense hinged on junior running back Jafar Armstrong breaking out. The idea of a dual-threat back spreading defenses thin was a tantalizing one. Combine that with the all-around abilities of senior Tony Jones and offensive coordinator Chip Long might finally have the full array of two-back sets he long wanted.
That was, in fact, exactly how Notre Dame began the season. On its first drive on Labor Day, the Irish deployed two backs on each snap of a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Armstrong was a part of the first five of them, injured on the fourth while making a 16-yard catch.
That abdominal muscle tear essentially robbed Notre Dame of Armstrong for the entire season. Though he returned to action against USC, it took until the regular-season finale for Armstrong to flash any of his athleticism.
“It’s been a process for him,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in mid-November. “It’s taken him time to develop his core strength back. He had a pretty significant injury. For him to get back on the field the way he did is a great testament to him. That doesn’t mean you’re back to the level of playing the game before the injury.”
Without Armstrong, Notre Dame leaned on Tony Jones, and he delivered as he did throughout his career, reliably. His 857 yards on 144 carries may not have put him in the class of Jones or Williams, but Jones kept the Irish ground game relatively effective, largely single-handedly.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
With Jones off to the NFL, the first thoughts return to Armstrong. While he has never shown a running style with his pads appropriately low, he has also never had the chance to prove himself week after week. Some may criticize Armstrong’s durability, or lack thereof, but his injuries have been the types that do not suggest future likelihood. A knee infection in 2018 preceded 2019’s abdomen tear. Those are unrelated and each a bit flukey.
But this spring, Armstrong will not be alone trying to stand atop the backfield pecking order. Current sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister have each shown competence in limited time, and freshman Kyren Williams looked suitable in September before preserving a season of eligibility.
The myriad skills among the four suggest a timeshare will be in order. Armstrong’s aptitude catching passes should mix well with Smith’s bowling ball rushing, just as it was originally supposed to alongside Jones. Flemister’s shiftiness could offer a change of pace, and Williams may present a bit of each of these.
Much time will be spent tracking who gets more first-team reps in the spring; more time will be spent in the summer overreacting to each internal rumor of weight room impressions; and seeking a clear starter will fill the preseason content mill. However, that fretting will all be somewhat misplaced. It is more likely the Irish continue to split carries among a few backs, just as they did even when they had record-setting backs on hand.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
A fifth name will join the fray in the summer, five-star running back Chris Tyree. His 4.38 speed will force him onto the field in 2020, presumably for a full season rather than an eligibility-preserving four games.
That said, there is little chance Tyree will be the lead back from the outset. No matter how promising a recruit he may be, Tyree is still an undersized 18-year-old at one of the most physical positions in sports.
“We’ll develop him naturally from that [179 pounds] and continue to build a coat of armor on him once he gets in here,” Kelly said on December’s National Signing Day.
A running back committee will have space for Tyree, even if it does not feature him.