After seeing time at both running back and wide receiver during his prep career at St. Louis (Mo.) St. John Vianney, Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams capped off his career with an outstanding senior campaign. Williams capped off his final season with 2,760 total yards and 40 touchdowns, including 354 total yard (289 yards rushing) performance in Vianney’s state final victory over Fort Osage 28-14.
That standout career would lead to a three or four star rating depending on the outlet you ask, including 19 reported offers, including from in-state Missouri. In the end, the allure of the Fighting Irish was enough to land the services of the talented all purpose back.
As is the case for many true freshmen, Williams spent his initial season acclimating to the college game, while also getting his feet wet in four contests without compromising his year of eligibility. Heading into the 2020 season, the impact from the running back position left a lot more question marks than answers with the loss of 2019 leading rusher Tony Jones Jr.
With just 140 career carries returning to the running back unit, who would end up as the high volume ball carrier remained a mystery. Junior C’Bo Flemister took the most carries the year prior (48 total) but lacked the profile to shoulder a heavy workload. Classmate Jahmir Smith had also failed to establish a role for the Irish until that point. There was optimism for Jafar Armstrong early on following his transition but that luster had faded after a 2.7 yards per carry average the year prior.
Perhaps the most optimistic outlook was true freshman Chris Tyree, touted as a five-star from various outlets, possessing the type of breakaway speed that had been missing for the Irish.
While Tyree would play a ton as a freshman, showing off his outstanding talent in flashes, he would quickly take on a secondary role to Williams.
A somewhat forgotten man at times in the running back race, Kyren Williams would respond big time to early opportunity, becoming the first Irish player since 1996 to eclipse the 90-yard mark in both rushing (112) and receiving (93) in their opening season victory over Duke.
Williams would ride that initial success, quickly becoming the focal point of the Irish offense and asserting himself as one of the outstanding runners in all of college football. The catalyst for the Irish during their playoff run, the redshirt freshman would pace the team with 1,438 total yards (1,125 rushing, 313 receiving), including 14 touchdowns.
That quick ascension has now offered the question; “Just how long will the Irish be with Williams’ services?” With the short shelf life for running backs on the next level, coupled with the fresh legs Williams offers to teams on the next level, the most reasonable outlook is that 2021 will most likely be the finale to Williams’ short but impactful run as Notre Dame’s lead ball carrier.
Just how does he stack up if he does indeed opt for the 2022 NFL Draft? Let’s put him under the microscope.
THE EYE IN THE SKY
The first thing people are going to ding Williams for is his lack of prototypical size, at least the size you would typically associate with an every down ball carrier. The good news for Kyren is that those “bell cow backs” who are going to touch the ball between 350-400 times a season are becoming few and far between.
Even so, runners can overcompensate for lack of size when they excel in other areas. Short-area explosiveness stands out immediately when popping on Notre Dame film. “Give Williams an inch and he will take a mile.”
Williams is a slippery runner who has notable acceleration to take advantage of a crease. He gets up to top gear quickly, turning what would normally be modest gains into explosive ones.
One quality that can’t be understated is Williams’ ability to find hidden yardage. The old adage “football is a game of inches” can be overstated at times but the amount of extra effort runs, surely does add up at the end of the football game. Williams routinely finishes runs, having a great knack for finishing forward. He rarely ever takes massive shots, also, easily contorting his body to manipulate space.
In the pass game, Williams’ experience at wide receiver in high school shows up big time. As a traditional outlet option, Williams' outstanding spatial awareness and ability to make players miss one on one shows up in the open field.
In an NFL that more and more values the ability to manufacture and manipulate space, Williams is a nightmare for second and third level defenders in the passing game.
The variety that Williams gives you in the passing game is what really gets you excited. He is not your ordinary check down option. Notre Dame used his creativity out of the backfield, both with angle routes and down the seam.
This puts second level defenders in a huge quarry. Williams is not the type of athlete who is easy to check while running routes. He is both fluid and quick, making the potential for an expansive route tree a definite possibility.
Now the part that takes you slightly off guard. Despite what Pro Football Focus wants you to think, you won’t find many better pass blockers in college football than Williams. Despite the lack of live reps, he put on a clinic throughout the season.
Boasting a dense and compact frame, he has some natural leverage and power in his lower half. He frames well, showing outstanding patience to sort a wide variety of blitz looks. Pass blocking for running backs, often comes down to want to. Williams definitely wants to. He routinely puts opposing defenders on their backs, playing with outstanding effort and intensity in that area.
Add that together and that gives us a tough and explosive runner in short bursts, who brings variety as a pass receiver and is an outstanding pass protector.
Sign me up.
FIRST RUNNING BACK OFF THE BOARD?
When walking 2022 NFL Draft running backs, names like Isaiah Spiller (Texas A&M) and Breece Hall (Iowa State) are a couple of the players that come to mind early. They fit closer to the prototype physically, closely resembling the bell cow runners that the NFL traditionally values.
Like was the case in the 2020 NFL Draft, where players like Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins and D’Andre Swift seemed to closely resemble the standard NFL teams look for, it was the do it all Clyde Edwards-Helaire who was the lone back selected in the first round by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Breaking the mold of tradition, the all around skillset of a player like Kyren Williams is sure to capture the attention of offensive coordinators at the next level. Fast forwarding to April, do not be shocked if Williams ends up as the first running back off the board, especially with how the NFL has begun to value the position stylistically.
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