It wasn't that long ago that running back was a major question mark for Notre Dame, but heading into the 2021 season the position is expected to be a strength. In fact, if things go according to plan the Fighting Irish offense could put one of the nation's very best running back tandems on the field this season.
For an offense that lost much of its 2020 production, getting the backfield to play at its peak potential, and to do so early, is a must.
RETURNING PRODUCTION (Career)
Kyren Williams - 215 carries, 1,151 yards, 5.4 YPC, 13 TD / 36 catches, 316 yards, 1 TD
Chris Tyree - 73 carries, 496 yards, 6.8 YPC, 4 TD / 8 catches, 65 yards
C'Bo Flemister - 107 carries, 461 yards, 4.3 YPC, 10 TD / 3 catches, 49 yards
IS THERE ANOTHER LEVEL FOR KYREN WILLIAMS?
Williams was a breakout star for Notre Dame last season, going from a player that saw very little action as a true freshman (2019) to a back that earned second-team All-American honors from Sporting News as a true sophomore (2020).
The St. Louis native made his presence felt immediately, rushing for 112 yards and two scores while hauling in two passes for 93 yards in the season opener against Duke. Williams topped 100 yards in three of the first four games of the season, including a career-high 185 yards (9.7 YPC) and two more scores in a 42-26 win over Florida State.
Williams showed a strong all-around game, showing the ability to run with authority, the ability to make defenders miss in space, the ability to rip off big plays and the ability to make an impact in the pass game. He finished the season with 1,125 rushing yards (5.3 YPC), 313 receiving yards and 14 total touchdowns.
So what will Williams do for an encore?
Notre Dame needs even more from Williams in 2021. Not so much from a raw rushing numbers standpoint, but just a stronger all-around performance and a more clean performance. Williams put the ball on the ground too much last season and there's still room for him to improve his footwork in the backfield, his decision making, and his pass blocking - while impressive at times - must be more consistent.
If Williams cleans up his decision making and technique a result could very well be him being a more efficient and effective runner. The result should be an improvement on his 5.3 yards per carry average, which was the lowest for a Notre Dame leading rusher since 2014.
I wouldn't be surprised if Williams doesn't have a huge jump in rushing yards, but instead we see a jump in yards per carry. Where I could see Williams having a big jump in production is in the pass game. Expect to see the Notre Dame coaches involve Williams even more as a pass catcher this season. He caught eight passes in the final game of the season, which inflated his numbers a bit.
With a year of experience under his belt I anticipate Williams being used more out of the backfield, but we will also likely see him lining up more in the slot in an attempt to get him in favorable pass game matchups on the perimeter.
TIME FOR MORE CHRIS TYREE
Notre Dame needs to get rising sophomore Chris Tyree on the field more this season, and it needs to make Williams and Tyree more of a dynamic duo. Last season the Irish used Tyree to give Williams "a breather," but now the two backs need to be focal points of the offense.
Tyree is the most explosive athlete on the roster, and we saw it during his freshman season. He is a home run waiting to happen, and now that he has a year under his belt his game should be even better.
Like Williams, Tyree still has aspects of his game he needs to clean up. His footwork needs to be more efficient, his timing needs to get better and of course the second year back has gotten bigger and stronger, which was needed. A more efficient Tyree is going to be an even better Tyree, one that could actually improve on his 6.8 YPC average from his freshman season.
Tyree is also a weapon in the pass game, and the fact both he and Williams are so good in that part of the game makes it much more doable to get both players on the field together instead of just using them as a rotation.
Getting Williams and Tyree both going in a manner that looks similar to what we saw last season from North Carolina, who had two 1,000-yard backs last season, would certainly be exciting for fans and would also give the Irish offense a very potent, dynamic duo.
WHAT WILL C'BO FLEMISTER'S ROLE BE THIS SEASON?
Flemister has been a quality short-yardage, change of pace back for the Irish the last two seasons. During that stretch the Georgia native rushed for 10 touchdowns, showing the ability to find the end zone at a high level.
Now a senior, Flemister will look to continue building on his role and perhaps even add a few more touches. A hard runner that is a decent pass catcher, Flemister could also become a part of a two-back alignment in which he becomes more of a pass blocker and screen player.
FRESHMAN CLASS READY TO IMPRESS
Flemister will have to hold off a pair of talented first-year players. Notre Dame welcomed Logan Diggs and Audric Estime this summer, and both are skilled runners that could be hard to keep off the field.
Diggs is an athletic dual-threat runner that can do it all. Diggs has excellent feet and he can make you miss in space. He can also run with authority and he's a legit weapon in the pass game. If you are someone who likes comparison's I view Diggs as a faster, more athletic version of Tony Jones Jr.
Estime is a huge back that can run with authority when he needs to, but he has nimble feet and he is as willing to make a defender miss as he is to run them over. His size and power could make him a legitimate weapon to push Flemister as the short-yardage back and it should translate well to pass protection.
Their presence gives Notre Dame great depth and security in case of an injury or two. But you can expect this duo to come in early and make a push, which will force the veterans to be at their best if they want to stay on the field.
KEY RUNNING BACK QUESTIONS
There are five running back questions I’m looking forward to seeing answered this summer and into the fall.
1. Is there another level for Williams? — Williams was really good in 2020 and the assumption is that the year of experience will help him become an even better back. I expect that to happen but now Williams needs to prove that he has not peaked. That means not only being more efficient and consistent, but also being a bit more explosive. Improving on his 5.3 YPC is a must, as is protecting the football.
2. Can Tyree become a legitimate 1B to Williams? — Barring injury I fully expect Williams to be the lead back for the Irish, and if his game continues to improve he could emerge as one of the nation's premier backs. But Tyree brings a unique element to the game, and that's legitimate game breaking speed. The ideal scenario for Notre Dame is that Williams and Tyree look a lot in 2021 like what Michael Carter (1,245 rush yards) and Javonte Williams (1,140 rush yards) looked like for North Carolina the last two seasons.
3. How will Lance Taylor and Tommy Rees use Williams and Tyree together? — In order for Williams and Tyree to become that type of duo the Irish offensive coaching staff must figure out how to make both a focal point of the game plan. That means how to best rotate them, how to best build around each's skillset and also how to properly get them both on the field together. Sometimes that means both in the backfield, sometimes it means getting Williams outside and sometimes it will mean Tyree moving outside.
4. Can the freshmen make an immediate impact? — In past years there would have been no doubt that Diggs and Estime would have played as freshmen, but the backfield is much deeper now. That means if the rookies play they earned it, and that means they are ready to be really, really good. Their time might not come this season, at least not on a full-time basis, but keeping both off the field might be a challenge.
5. Will the backs be able to thrive if the offensive line struggles? — The offensive line is a major question mark for Notre Dame in 2021. Will the unit be good enough for the backs to dominate? What if the unit doesn't come together, or at least doesn't come together early? Can the Irish backs overcome that? Can the offensive coaches scheme things up in a way that protects the backs at times, and then uses the backs and scheme to protect the line at times? That could be the one thing that keeps this backfield from reaching its full production potential.
The running back depth chart will play to its potential if ….
Kyren Williams cleans up his game and becomes a more efficient runner and he's a much bigger weapon in the pass game ... Chris Tyree is an explosive back that proves to be a major threat every time he's on the field, which takes pressure off Williams and gives the Irish a dynamic one-two punch ... We see a lot more pass game production from the backs ... The backfield remains healthy, protects the football and dominates in short-yardage situations.
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