Much of the focus on Notre Dame's offense heading into 2021 is what the program lost. A new quarterback and four new starting offensive linemen gets much of the focus, but Notre Dame's offense also returns arguably the best backfield in the country.
Notre Dame not only has one of the most productive returning backfields, there is plenty of talent in that group as well.
Athlon Sports, in its preseason college football preview, ranked the Notre Dame returning backs as the fourth best group in the country.
Here is their ranking:
3. Texas A&M
4. NOTRE DAME
5. Iowa State
7. Ohio State
10. Arizona State
Notre Dame's 2020 backfield was young and is still evolving and improving, which also factors into the argument that it is the Irish group that should rank as the nation's best returning backfield.
Kyren Williams returns as the nation's fifth-leading rusher after he racked up 1,125 rushing yards in 2020 as a redshirt freshman. The St. Louis, Mo. native had the third-most yards from scrimmage of any returning skill player in the country from last season.
Rising sophomore Chris Tyree didn't get much action last season, but when he got the ball he was dynamic. Tyree rushed for 496 yards and averaged 6.8 yards per attempt. Notre Dame's third back - C'Bo Flemister - rushed for five touchdowns and averaged 5.2 yards per carry on just 58 attempts.
Notre Dame also welcomes a pair of talented newcomers in freshmen Logan Diggs and Audric Estime, who had size, athleticism and dual-threat skills to the backfield.
Here's a look at the other backfields that are in contention for the best returning backfield (numbers are for the top three returning backs and from the 2020 season):
ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Top Returning Backs: Brian Robinson, Jase McClellan, Trey Sanders
Returning Production: 862 rush yards, 25 receiving yards, 8 TD
Top Newcomers: Camar Wheaton
Having Alabama as the top backfield surprised me quite a bit, and it is obviously a pure projection pick. Robinson has been a solid back, but he isn't the high-end talent of past Tide backs. McClelland could be and he impressed in limited snaps. Sanders is a former five-star back that was injured last season, but he'll be good if he's healthy. Wheaton is another five-star back. There's talent here, but this backfield has A LOT to prove before it should be considered the nation's top backfield.
Top Returning Backs: Zamir White, James Cook, Kenny McIntosh, Kendall Milton, Daijun Edwards
Returning Production: 1,333 rush yards, 373 receiving yards, 17 TD
Top Newcomers: Lovasea Carroll
Georgia has an incredibly deep backfield coming back. White is the top returning rusher and Cook is an impressive weapon in the pass game. A case could be made that Milton - a rising sophomore - is the most talented back on the roster. There are a lot of teams who would love to have McIntosh and Edwards. If the Bulldogs and become a better passing team with JT Daniels at quarterback it could make life much easier for this deep and talented backfield. I'd rank the Georgia backfield as the best returning group in the SEC.
TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Top Returning Backs: Isaiah Spiller, Devon Achane, Ainias Smith
Returning Production: 1,693 rush yards, 854 receiving yards, 24 TD
Top Newcomers: LJ Johnson, Amari Daniels
Spiller is a steady and under-valued running back. Texas A&M's biggest win last season was the victory over Florida, and Spiller was brilliant in that game, rushing for 174 yards and two scores. Smith averaged 6.0 yards on 49 carries and hauled in 43 passes for 564 yards, combining for 10 total touchdowns. A strong case could be made that Texas A&M enters the season in competition with Georgia for the best returning SEC backfield, and not Alabama.
Top Returning Backs: Kennedy Brooks, Marcus Major, Mikey Henderson
Returning Production: 1,970 rush yards, 362 receiving yards, 15 TD
Top Newcomers: Eric Gray (transfer/Tennessee)
The returning production is what Brooks posted in 2019 and what Gray did at Tennessee last season. Brooks opted out of the 2020 season and his return is incredibly important for Oklahoma, who kicked talented but troubled freshman Seth McGowan off the team. McGowan rushed for 370 yards (6.4 YPC) as a rookie. Gray racked up 772 yards for the Volunteers last season and should combine with Brooks to form the best backfield in the Big 12.
OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
Top Returning Backs: Master Teague, Miyan Williams, Marcus Crowley
Returning Production: 664 rush yards, 46 receiving yards, 8 TD (9 games)
Top Newcomers: TreVeyon Henderson, Evan Pryor
Ohio State's returning backfield is solid but unspectacular. Teague is a smart, physical runner that can hammer out yards and Williams is a solid depth player. Crowley has potential to be a big-play back if he can stay healthy. That is a quality group, but what makes Ohio State set to have one of the best backfields in the country is the arrival of Henderson and Pryor, especially Henderson. He's a dynamic player that could end up being Ohio State's best running back by the time the season is over.
Top Returning Backs: Bijan Robinson, Roschon Johnson, Jarrett Smith
Returning Production: 1,126 rush yards, 247 receiving yards, 13 TD
Top Newcomers: Jonathon Brooks
This is an intriguing group. Robinson did very little in his first five games, but he was outstanding down the stretch. He racked up 522 rushing yards in the final four games of the season, including 172 yards and three scores (on just nine carries) in a win over Kansas State and 183 yards (on just 10 carries) against Colorado, the final two games of the season. Robinson is getting a lot of hype coming into the season, and he has the talent to back it up. The rest of the backfield are quality depth players, so this ranking is all about Robinson breaking out.
OTHER TOP BACKFIELDS TO CONSIDER
Athlon had Clemson as one of the top returning backfields, but that group has A LOT to prove before I can call it one of the ten best groups in the country. Miami returns a quality backfield that could breakout and be one of the best in the ACC, and Florida State is another ACC backfield that could push for the best group in the conference.
Oregon returns a pair of talented backs (Travis Dye, CJ Verdell), and UCLA has a pair of transfers in its backfield (Brittain Brown, Zach Charbonnet) that could be potent. Brown rushed for 543 yards (6.6 YPC) in just seven games in his first season with the Bruins after transferring from Duke. Charbonnet rushed for 726 yards and 11 touchdowns as a true freshman for Michigan in 2019.
Minnesota returns one of the better returning backfields in the Big Ten.
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