Spring Preview: Running Back
For the third straight season the running back position is one of the biggest question marks heading into spring practice.
Two years ago it was how would Notre Dame replace Josh Adams. Last season it was how would they replace Dexter Williams. The questions this season are a bit more concerning for a number of reasons, but there is no doubt that Notre Dame will need to get improved play from a number of players in the backfield in 2020.
SPRING DEPTH CHART
Notre Dame returns 500 rushing yards from the 2019 running back depth chart, but the group averaged just 3.4 yards per attempt. The positive is they reached the end zone eight times. Another positive is the group combined for 27 catches for 249 yards and two touchdowns.
Even if the line makes a big jump in 2020 the offense will need the running backs to be more efficient, explosive and effective in the run game than they were in 2019. Across the board there will need to be improvement in pass protection. Tony Jones Jr. was a solid runner for the Irish in 2019, but his best attribute was what he brought to the pass game, especially as a blocker.
There are reasons for optimism that exist beyond waiting on talented freshman running back Chris Tyree to show up in the fall. The lack of production is concerning, but there is talent on the roster, and that young group of players from 2019 are now more seasoned. The group will also be coached extremely well.
NOW OR NEVER FOR ARMSTRONG
Senior Jafar Armstrong went into the 2019 season expecting to be the top back for the Irish, or at the very least co-No. 1 with Jones. On the first drive of the season, Armstrong caught a pass for 16 yards and carried the ball twice for 10 yards. It seemed he was ready to meet expectations, but he was injured on that drive and would never be the same.
Armstrong missed the next four games, and when he returned he averaged just 2.5 yards per carry. He never looked comfortable carrying the ball, and it seemed the only success he had was attacking the perimeter on sweeps. The player we saw before his injury in 2018 has not returned, and that’s concerning.
Heading into the spring, Armstrong is still the most experienced player at the position, having rushed for 505 yards and hauled in 256 yards worth of passes in his career. If he can get back to looking like the player he was in 2018, when he rushed for 383 yards and averaged 5.3 yards per carry to go with 14 catches for 159 yards, the Irish will have a quality back that brings good size and speed to the position.
But Armstrong’s injury history is also troubling, as is how uncomfortable he looked running the ball last season. He was rushed, indecisive and looked like someone that was brand new to the position. It was a step back from the player he was showing himself to be the year prior.
If he steps up this spring the position will look much, much better. If he doesn’t then the younger players on the roster will have a chance to pass him up.
2018 CLASS READY TO EMERGE
Their numbers aren’t overly impressive, but the 2018 signees in the backfield showed flashes last season. With Jones gone the rising juniors will get an opportunity to seize key roles in the backfield. In fact, they will have every opportunity to rise to the top of the depth chart.
When Armstrong went down it was Jahmir Smith that stepped into the lineup. He played well against Louisville, rushing for a pair of touchdowns in the victory. But Smith also went down in the game and missed the next two contests.
Smith is a hard downhill runner that shows a natural feel for the position. He is light on his feet, shows good leg drive and shows an impressive burst at the snap. Smith isn’t a burner, but he gets downhill in a hurry and can rip off big runs if given a crease, which we saw against Duke.
Smith has struggled to stay healthy and at times he gets too much of a forward lean, which causes him to lose balance and limits his ability to make moves. This is why you will see him fall down at the end of some runs.
When he keeps his pads were they should be he shows suddenness and the ability to hammer defenses. He’ll need to improve as a pass blocker, and if he can I could see him taking over the role Jones had last year as a strong first and second down runner that has the power to handle pass protection at a high level.
The most natural looking back on the depth chart is C'Bo Flemister, who started to get more and more comfortable late in the season. Flemister is more smooth than fast, which masks how quick he is attacking the defense. The rising junior showed more patience later in the year, and the result was more efficient and effective running.
What surprised me the most about Flemister is that even though he is the lightest back on the roster, he was arguably the most physical runner they had, along with Jones. Flemister showed time and time again a willingness to run right through a defender. With another year in the weight room he’ll be even more effective in this part of the game.
Like Smith, Flemister needs to make a big jump in pass protection, and if he can, and if he can continue to clean up his footwork, he could easily rise to the top of the depth chart next season.
If both Smith and Flemister can stay healthy, continue their overall development and improve in the pass game they provide the offense with more than enough talent and production potential to be part of a strong running game. They have a chance to form a quality one-two punch in the backfield.
This is why I'm more optimistic about the backfield than some might expect. There is talent in this group, and while none of it is elite talent, combined with the line they give the offense more than enough talent to be outstanding. If everything goes perfectly to plan and the 2018 signees and Armstrong tap into their full potential the Irish will have a deep and dangerous backfield.
PASS GAME WEAPONS
I don’t ever see rising senior Avery Davis developing into a run-first back, but he does bring potential as a pass catcher. At times injuries to others thrust him into a role he has yet to show himself to be comfortable with, but if the Irish backfield can stay healthy and Davis can focus on being more of a change of pace player he could give the backfield a legit weapon in the pass game.
The same is true of rising sophomore Kyren Williams, who is a more natural runner than Davis. Williams showed flashes in the spring and had a quality fall camp, but after playing a bit early he took a redshirt. He’s a tough runner that can effectively run routes and catch the ball out of the backfield and in the slot.
Williams lacks home run juice, but he’s a quality all-around athlete that will push the older players. If they don’t improve their games this spring do not be surprised to see Williams climb over a player or two.
If the veterans do step up, Williams gives position coach Lance Taylor a versatile and athletic player to use as part of a deep rotation.
The returning backs all need to perform well this spring. Anyone that lags behind will also have to contend with Tyree once he shows up in the fall.
1. Will Armstrong finally be able to stay healthy, and can he finally become a more natural runner.
2. Can at least one of the rising juniors become an every down back, and like Armstrong, can they stay healthy?
3. Will Williams be able to push the older players or will he be relegated to a pass catching role?
4. Who takes over the pass pro role that Jones thrived at the last two seasons?
5. Will the backfield provide enough big play ability to keep defense’s honest?