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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Position Battles | Running Back

June 2, 2020

A program doesn’t need a star running back to win a lot of games. Last year’s Notre Dame team is a perfect example of that.

The Irish did not have a star ready to take over with Josh Adams and Dexter Williams no longer on the roster, but out of all of the options, they were able to find one who separated himself from the pack.

That would be Tony Jones Jr. who emerged as a capable RB1 while averaging 80.1 yards a game from scrimmage. He won’t be remembered as one of the greats, but he stepped up and could be counted on.

Jones Jr. is gone and Notre Dame is in the same position they were last year with a lot of options and no obvious answers. The are six backs who will be competing for carries and how things will get sorted out is anybody’s guess at this point. It doesn’t help that there wasn’t a spring ball to help figure out the order of things.

They enter the summer with Jafar Armstrong as the most experienced back on the roster. He’s also coming off an extremely disappointing season where he missed a good chunk of it due to injury and managed to only average 2.65 yards per carry.

Armstrong has had 142 touches over the last two seasons. Out of those touches, he has two plays of 30 yards or more: a 30-yard gain vs Wake Forest in 2018 and a 42-yard run vs Ball State. That’s quite a few opportunities and not a lot of explosive plays.

It’s about more than staying healthy for him. Armstrong has to prove he can make defenders miss at the second level or be a tackle breaker. He’s shown neither up to this point, which is why it’s more likely he’s going to be a complimentary piece than the lead dog in the backfield.

Notre Dame recently added Stanford graduate transfer Trevor Speights. Lance Taylor recruited him and knows him, but there are many questions about Speights’ game based on what we’ve seen and haven’t seen from him in games.

He didn’t run behind a great Stanford offensive line in 2018, but the Cardinal averaged 5.9 yards per carry in 2017. Speights averaged 3.9.

He has seven career catches. He didn’t flash any explosiveness as a runner at Stanford other than a 38-yard run versus FCS UC Davis. His career-long against an FBS opponent is 13 yards. The two games where he had more than 15 carries, he averaged 1.8 and 3.3 YPC.

In addition to all of that, there are some questions about his injury history as well.

He offers a veteran presence and it’s a no risk pick up, but it’s difficult to have high expectations of him becoming a feature back.

After that there’s Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister, who both flashed potential in practices and on Saturdays. Smith had a 40-yard run against Duke. Flemister gave the offense a spark against Virginia. He also showed toughness as a runner then and in garbage time opportunities.

It should be noted that Smith fell to fourth on the depth chart late in the season, rushing for 0 yards on 7 carries in the final four games. We also haven’t seen anything from Flemister to suggest he can be a dynamic back (his longest rush was for 14 yards).

In many ways what’s unknown about those two is what makes them intriguing options. The same goes for Kyren Williams who had the kind of fall camp last year that suggested he would make an impact as a true freshman. He ultimately ended up redshirting after not being involved in the offense early in the season.

His versatility is his greatest strength and his skill set is comparable to former Notre Dame back Theo Riddick. He’ll need to make a leap in 2020 because of the back the Irish have added in the class behind him.

That would be Chris Tyree, an elite prospect with sub 4.4 40 speed and tremendous lateral agility. He’ll walk into the running back room with the most raw talent of the group.

He’ll also be walking into a situation where he has less time working in the strength and conditioning program and potentially less practice time to get ready for the season. All of that makes his path to being the potential starter unclear, but despite that, a path exists.

The reason it exists has everything to do with the uncertainty in front of him on the depth chart. No one knows who will be the first back to get carries in week one and if that back will still be the first back to get carries a month after that.

Notre Dame wants to be able to run the ball well behind an experienced offensive line in 2020. At least one back will have to step up to be able to do that and the competition should be wide open when all of the players arrive back on campus.

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