Perhaps lost somewhere amid the conversation of Notre Dame’s playoff push and Brian Kelly’s necessary quarterback change is the resurgence of Dexter Williams. The Notre Dame senior running back has only played in two games this season, but he might be just as essential in engineering the Irish’s march into the national title conversation as anything else.
Williams, who was suspended for the first four games of the season for undisclosed disciplinary reasons, returned on a mission last week against Stanford. In two games, he has compiled 339 rushing yards on 38 carries with four touchdowns, surpassing his total yardage (360) from a year ago. In Notre Dame’s 45–23 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday night in Blacksburg, he racked up a career-high 178 of those yards with three scores, including a 97-yard rush up the middle of the field that really busted open the game early in the second half.
Notre Dame needed this performance from Williams. At halftime, the Irish were clinging to a one-point lead and had minus-3 rushing yards on 13 carries, surprising given the 241 rushing yards they put up against Wake Forest two weeks ago and the 272 last week against Stanford. Notre Dame was pinned against its own end zone on its first possession of the third quarter after a Virginia Tech punt. That’s when Ian Book handed the ball off to Williams on second-and-12 and he wiggled loose for a 97-yard touchdown run to give his team a more comfortable 24–16 lead.
The run looked pretty similar to a play he made the week before against the Cardinal. On Notre Dame’s second drive of that game, Book handed Williams the ball on second-and-11 and he ran for a 45-yard touchdown to put his team up 7–0. That score was an emotional one as it was his first touch of the season.
“It was making up for lost time,” Williams told reporters earlier this week. “A lot of lost time.”
Williams finished the Stanford game with what was then a career-high 21 carries for 161 yards and a touchdown. But he one-upped himself against the Hokies, capping off the night with a 31-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against Tech’s fourth-ranked rush defense, which came into Saturday allowing just 84 yards per game. These past two weeks are the only two games he’s ever posted double-digit carries in his career.
Notre Dame needed this. After a 56–27 romp over Wake Forest two weeks ago, the Irish lost top tailback Jafar Armstrong to a knee infection, and another option, Tony Jones Jr., has been battling ankle injuries over the past year. Avery Davis (a converted quarterback) and freshmen Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister aren’t quite ready to carry the load for Notre Dame.
Williams has the speed and experience to give the Irish a dominant running game in a similar fashion to what Josh Adams provided last season. In 2017, Notre Dame had the seventh-best running game in the country with Adams running behind two top-10 draft picks on the left side of its offensive line: guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey. It was hard to truly know what the Irish rushing attack would look like this year after losing that NFL talent. This year’s line is holding up O.K.: senior captain and left guard Alex Bars suffered an ACL/MCL injury last week against Stanford, and Notre Dame has been averaging more than 200 rushing yards per game this season. Now, Williams is back and proving he can be the guy in the backfield, a revelation that will serve Notre Dame well as it continues its quest for a playoff spot.
That goal, by the way, is looking more and more attainable each week. The Irish are 6–0, which includes three Top 25 wins over Michigan, Stanford and now Virginia Tech. The rest of the schedule: Pitt, Navy (in San Diego), at Northwestern, Florida State, Syracuse (at Yankee Stadium) and on the road against USC. Complete an undefeated regular season and it will be difficult for the selection committee to keep Notre Dame out.
To do this, Williams will have to stay on task. After his big game against the Hokies, he was signing autographs and everywhere he turned a teammate was looking for a high-five. He knows he must stay focused to keep getting opportunities.
“If he wasn’t growing as a young man, as a student-athlete here at Notre Dame, he wouldn’t have the chance that he got here,” Kelly told reporters ahead of the matchup against Virginia Tech. “It’s a privilege to play here and he recognizes that. And when he got his chance, he made the best of it. And we needed him.”
The Irish will continue to need him.