It wasn’t that long ago that running back was arguably the biggest question mark on the Notre Dame roster, something that has dramatically changed, and quickly. Now the unit is arguably the best on the Irish roster, which is saying something.
In fact, it was just two years ago when Notre Dame went into the Georgia game with basically one healthy running back on the roster, which resulted in senior Tony Jones Jr. taking the vast majority of the snaps in a game where the Irish offense ran the ball just 14 times for 46 yards.
Fast forward just two seasons and the Notre Dame backfield is absolutely loaded.
“From the top down our RB position is as strong as it’s ever been,” offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said bluntly during Saturday’s press conference, which followed the team’s first real scrimmage of fall camp.
Rees, of course, was a quarterback for the 2011 team that had a dynamic one-two punch in Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray, a duo that combined for 1,893 rushing yards (5.7 YPC) and 21 touchdowns that season. A season later Rees was part of an Irish team that saw a three-headed monster that consisted of Wood, Theo Riddick and the late George Atkinson III combine for 2,020 rushing yards (5.7 YPC), 14 rushing touchdowns and another 399 yards through the air.
In 2015, Notre Dame had CJ Prosise (1,029 rush yards, 6.6 YPC, 11 TD) and Josh Adams (838 yards, 7.2 YPC, 6 TD) spearhead a dynamic one-two punch at backfield. Rees’s first season on staff at Notre Dame we saw Adams rack up another 1,430 yards (6.9 YPC) and depth chart behind him that combined for 992 additional rushing yards at a 6.4 yards per carry clip.
Needless to say, Rees has seen some potent backfields in his time, including the one last season, and that entire group is back. The unit is led by junior Kyren Williams, who earned second-team All-American honors a year ago from Sporting News after he rushed for 1,125 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“Kyren doesn’t ever really get satisfied,” Rees said of his junior back, who was recently named a team captain. “He always wants to do more, he always wants to continue to push himself, push his teammates and find new ways to improve his game.”
An older, stronger and more motivated Williams will be problematic for defenses, and the Irish offense is determined to expand their standout running back’s role this season.
“It’s our job to find new ways to get him touches, it’s our job to put him in a bunch of positions to be successful,” Rees explained. “He’s eager for more; I think there’s some plays out there that he wishes he could have finished, and I think that’s somewhere that he’s really emphasizing. You know I don’t want to get tripped up, I want to make sure I can rip through those … Kyren looks hungrier than ever.”
You can expect an expanded role for sophomore speedster Chris Tyree as well. The Virginia native racked up 496 yards and four scores as a true freshman in 2020 despite not being on campus for the spring and seeing Covid-19 make it more challenging for first year players to get acclimated. More impressive than his total numbers was Tyree’s 6.8 yards per carry and explosive speed.
Tyree was able to quickly get acclimated to things last season, which helped him make an early impact. A pair of current freshmen are doing the same. Rookies Logan Diggs and Audric Estime are very talented newcomers that give Notre Dame a legitimate five-deep ball carrier situation that is as healthy, and talented, as any Notre Dame backfield of the Brian Kelly tenure.
“I think both freshman backs have come in and done a nice job,” Rees said of the first-year runners. “The biggest thing is they’re really not disruptive into the process of running a play. The mental side of things for a couple of guys who weren’t here for spring practice, but for them to come in and mentally really pick it up that allows the flashes of their ability to show.
“The thing I’m most proud about is how they came in mentally,” continued the Notre Dame OC, “they were able to understand and process what we were doing and that’s allowed them to go play fast and execute at a high level.”
Not discussed during today’s press conference was senior C’Bo Flemister, an often overlooked member of the backfield, but he’s also a player that has rushed for 10 touchdowns in the last two seasons.
At Irish Breakdown excitement about what this offense could be this season has truly grown by leaps and bounds in recent weeks, and that excitement starts with this group.
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