Notebook: Notre Dame Planning For More Involvement From Other RBs, DBs
Kyren Williams’ 21-touch, 205-yard, two-touchdown starting debut was historically notable and present-day trend bucking.
No Irish player had topped 90 rushing yards and 90 receiving yards in the same game since 1983, when running back Allen Pinkett did it against Air Force in 1983. Williams, a sophomore who took over as the lead back in training camp, had 19 carries for 112 yards and two receptions for 93 yards Saturday against Duke.
The Brian Kelly era statistical outlier is in his touches.
Last season, starting running back Tony Jones Jr. topped 21 touches just once. In 2018, primary back Dexter Williams cleared that mark twice. Jones had more than 19 carries once. There’s clearly a high degree of trust in Kyren Williams from Kelly and Notre Dame’s offensive staff to allow him to reach that rarely seen workload in his first start.
“He has shown himself to have the ability in terms of the numbers he produced that he adds a dimension to our offense that makes us a better offense,” Kelly said. “We’re going to see him play a large role.”
There’s also a willingness to give Williams some help, which suggests 20-plus touches won’t be an every-week benchmark for him. Notre Dame’s other three running backs combined for 13 rushing attempts, and four of those came via Jahmir Smith on the Irish’s final run-out-the-clock drive. None of the three played more than 13 offensive snaps.
To keep Williams fresh and to involve others he sees as capable, Kelly wants those snaps and touches to rise. Freshman Chris Tyree, in 13 snaps, had six carries for 20 yards. Senior Jafar Armstrong played only eight snaps, but had four touches, including a 20-yard reception to set up Williams’ first touchdown. Junior C’Bo Flemister was dressed but did not play due to a collarbone injury, Kelly said.
“You also saw a Jafar Armstrong who can catch it and play physical,” Kelly said. “Jahmir. I know everyone saw the explosiveness of Chris Tyree. We didn’t see C’Bo Flemister, who arguably had as good a preseason as any of our backs.”
None of this is going to cut too deeply into Williams’ presence, of course. Through one week, he looks like Notre Dame’s steadiest offensive weapon and grew noticeably more comfortable seeing running lanes as the game progressed. He made defenders miss, absorbed contact and lined up in the backfield and receiver. He held up in pass protection. A 75-yard reception on a screen came when he was split wide.
“What he can do to this offense has separated itself a little bit,” Kelly said. “But all of those guys are going to be integral and important to our success.”
Kelly is also committed to a deeper rotation in the secondary after it was noticeably lacking in substitutions compared to the front seven, which used 18 players. Boundary cornerback Nick McCloud played every snap, while field corner Tariq Bracy played all but two. They combined for three pass breakups, and Bracy allowed zero catches.
“They played a little bit too much and they got a little tired,” Kelly said. “We’ll do a better job there. All in all, a really good first performance.”
Freshman Clarence Lewis, listed as a co-starter with Bracy, did not play on defense. McCloud’s backup, Cam Hart, played briefly at the end of the game in dime packages.
“We need to get some rotation in that group,” Kelly said. “Same with the safety position.”
The safety depth becomes more important with Kyle Hamilton’s ankle injury that has him “day-to-day” ahead of this week’s game. Nickel back D.J. Brown was his replacement. Junior Houston Griffith played 12 snaps, mostly in sub-packages, in relief of starter Shaun Crawford. If Hamilton does not play, Ohio State grad transfer Isaiah Pryor has a clearer path to some defensive snaps after playing exclusively special teams against Duke.
Passing Game Evolving
Notre Dame will gain one receiver and lose another.
Braden Lenzy is expected to play this week after a hamstring issue kept him out of the opener, while Bennett Skowronek’s hamstring injury suffered against Duke will likely force him to miss the next game.
Lenzy is listed as the starter at field receiver, or the ‘X’ receiver spot. Last week’s starter at the ‘X’ was Javon McKinley, who slides over to the boundary (the ‘W’ spot) in place of Skowronek. Joe Wilkins Jr. is listed as the backup at both spots after his four-catch, 44-yard performance.
McKinley caught 11 passes for 268 yards last season, with most of the work coming at the boundary spot late in games in place of Chase Claypool. He was not targeted in 61 snaps in the opener, though he earned an 87.7 run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus.
“We think that’s a really good position for him,” Kelly said. “He’s a really good blocker, he has good range. He can win 50/50 balls. We feel like he can do a nice job for us.”
Two of Notre Dame’s three longest gains through the air were on screen passes to running backs, the 75-yarder to Williams and 20-yarder to Armstrong. Wilkins had a 20-yard reception that was not on a screen.
For a receiving corps that caught just seven passes and saw 11 of 31 targets from quarterback Ian Book, screens are one way to get them involved if downfield separation is going to be a work in progress. Lenzy’s speed in particular plays naturally in the screen game.
“We would like to see that as a staple in terms of what we do,” Kelly said. “Whether it be the perimeter screens or slow screens, we think that’s something with our offensive line, their ability to move and Ian Book’s experience. We believe we have some receivers with savvy that can take that screen and turn it into a big play.”
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