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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Running Back Room Thrilled to be on the Field with Offensive Line, Buchner

August 17, 2022
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Running back Kyren Williams is now a member of the Los Angeles Rams, which means Notre Dame must replace 1,361 total yards and 17 touchdowns this fall. 

With new running backs coach Deland McCullough at the helm, this unit appears up for the challenge, but the offense as a whole should be in a much better position to help the running backs thrive. 

Feeding off an Improved Offensive Line

Fans watched — sometimes in horror — as the Irish offensive line struggled to get much of a push in the run game early in the 2021 season.

Even with an All-American back in Williams, Notre Dame averaged just 80.8 yards on the ground through their first five games and just 2.4 yards per carry. If such poor production had continued throughout the season, the latter figure would have ranked dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision

Under offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who returned to Notre Dame this offseason, it appears the line is firing off the ball and knocking back defenders in fall camp.

“It's been really good,”  McCullough said. “Those guys are moving guys off their spot consistently. Sitting in there in meetings with Coach Hiestand and hearing his coaching points and his methodologies, it's strong. You definitely see it on the field and see the way guys are responding to it.”

The players agree. Even former vocal critics like sophomore Logan Diggs — who often pointed out mistakes the offensive line made in 2021 — is pleased with what he’s seen thus far. 

He can now focus solely on the play of the running backs instead.

“I leave all that to Coach Harry,” said sophomore Logan Diggs. “Coach Harry is the guy. I'm not going to step in his way. If I see something, I communicate with the offense, but not to the same extreme — like last year when I just spoke my mind. 

“Coach Harry, he knows what he's doing. He's been here before, and he's been to the highest level. I know he knows way more than me. He's going to fix it. He's going to see it before I see it.”

In light of the line’s improvements, there should be more holes for the running backs to hit and fewer instances where they're forced to unexpectedly bounce a play to the outside.

“We feed off that as running backs, simply because we know it's a symbiotic deal between us both,” McCullough said. “I tell my guys, 'these guys are blocking for this [play] to go here, that's where we're going.”

It may equate to fewer opportunities for Sports Center-worthy runs like the 91-yard touchdown Williams had against North Carolina last October, but it’s generally a net positive when opposing linebackers are stuffed at the line. 

“I'm really excited about what [Hiestand is] doing with those guys and the way it's meshing with our guys and the style that we want,”  McCullough said. “He's teaching tough, two-fisted, smack-guys-in-the-mouth offensive lineman. That's how I'm teaching our running backs, too.”

Buchner’s Impact on the Run Game

Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner is a dynamic athlete. His speed isn’t why he ultimately won the starting job, but it's undeniable the impact his ability to run has on the offense.

“It brings a whole different element to the run game because Tyler is so talented as a runner,” said junior running back Chris Tyree. “You guys can see that from last year and throughout practice. He's really fluid as a runner. It just gives a defense another key to focus on. It’ll be a really good addition to our run game.”

Tyree, of course, knows from experience. He was on the field when Buchner made his first appearance of the season, replacing Jack Coan in the second quarter against Toledo in 2021.

On his first play, Buchner kept the ball on the read-option and scampered for 26 yards. He ended up rushing for 68 yards and a touchdown in a 32-29 win.

Buchner’s athleticism makes life easier for other offensive players as well, especially the running backs. Every time he hands the ball off on the read-option, the defense remains fixated on Buchner in case he pulls it and runs.

“It holds the defense a little bit longer, so I can be more patient with my reads,” Tyree said. “I can let the line develop their blocks a little bit more.”

Now the full-time starter, the offense will enjoy the same benefits much more frequently.

McCullough’s main concern is his running backs will end up a bit passive when called upon to protect a mobile quarterback, knowing he’s capable of escaping pressure on his own. 

With that in mind, McCullough informed his room that this type of mentality won’t be tolerated. 

“That [won’t] fly,” McCullough said. “Only guys who protect the quarterback are going to play. I feel confident all the guys that can do that. Needless to say, there's a pecking order on who will be out there to take on that lead role in particular situations of protecting the quarterback.”

It’s also vital that the running backs stayed committed to other facets of the game.

If Buchner fakes a handoff and the running back immediately slows down, it becomes much easier for the defense to adjust.

“Just do your part at the end of the day,” McCullough said. “If we're in some type of zone-read situation, you've got to sell the play even when you don't have the ball, maybe get a linebacker to think you have it and open up [a hole] for a running quarterback.”

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