Fall Camp Preview: Running Back

The month of July brings us close to the beginning of another fall camp for Notre Dame football. With practices set to begin soon we are taking a look at each position group ahead of the workouts. Now we break down the running back position in the lead up to August.

Where We Left Off in Spring

It was a spring for some rearranging following the bowl game suspensions of C.J. Holmes and Deon McIntosh. Both have since left the program and transferred to Penn State and East Mississippi Community College, respectively. Those moves were anticipated as we debated about who would move into the backfield and it turned about to be Jafar Armstrong from receiver, while Avery Davis got reps at running back and receiver in addition to quarterback.

While freshman Jahmir Smith was on campus for spring the top tailbacks remained Dexter Williams followed by Tony Jones which then flip-flopped for the second half of practices.

Number One Camp Story Line

It is rumored, and if we’re honest almost expected, that Dexter Williams will be suspended to begin the season. Ball State, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest await which lessens the blow of an (alleged) 4-game suspension but it’s that opener against Michigan–who could have their best defense since the Lloyd Carr peak years–that looms large.

We had a situation just like this play out last year with Kevin Stepherson, except the facade was maintained well into the beginning of the season as the troubled receiver remained absent from playing time until October. With Williams there’s been far too much smoke and an understanding if he’s sitting out quality reps in August an excuse of a sprained ankle isn’t going to pass the smell test.

Anticipation Level: 8/10

Perhaps this is a tad bit high but it’s mostly because this position group is so important, rather than true excitement over a certain player or an emerging fun positional battle. The running backs have a lot of work to do for fall camp and will need a quick start with an injection of confidence immediately at Culver.

My focus is primarily on these 3 players for camp:

1 Tony Jones – Without Dexter it’s only Jones’ 232 rushing yards from last year as returning experience at this position. This could set up a situation where he’s penciled in as the starter due to his huge advantage in knowing the offense but many (like me) are unsure if he’ll be a guy capable of being a true No. 1 against the tougher defenses on the schedule.

2 C’Bo Flemister – Why not throw a wildcard in here? It’ll be tough but not unheard of for Flemister to pass up his fellow freshman classmate and position himself for some playing time. Basically, we need to see–and we’ll know pretty quickly during camp–if this is a player who could turn heads right away and be one of the surprise guys on offense for 2018.

3 Jafar Armstrong – The converted receiver is no longer waiting in the background and could potentially be thrust into the spotlight immediately during camp. Prior to the spring game most weren’t really sure what we had with Armstrong at running back and he finished the Blue-Gold Game looking pretty effective. It’s still a little scary expecting him to be an often-used backup come the Michigan game but I suppose he showed enough promise to enjoy his development in August.

By |2018-07-12T22:50:38+00:00July 12th, 2018|Football|25 Comments

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KGnd09hls12irish_bandit_10hooks orpikMikeyB Recent comment authors
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Publius2010
Publius2010

Well this is going to be a disaster. If we were taking bets, I’d say Dexter Williams doesn’t play this season.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

Pete Sampson and BK…

https://theathletic.com/426601/2018/07/16/notre-dame-brian-kelly-football-coach-exclusive-qa/

“PS: So I can enter this into the record, what is the status of running back Dexter Williams?

BK: I think I’ve made this pretty clear: His status is he’s on our football team. He’s got to continue to do the right things. Then he’s in a competitive situation. We’ll see how it plays out.

As a general rule, I’m not going to divulge any information about players as it relates to honor code, as it relates to Community Standards. If it becomes public and it’s in the newspapers and it’s in the court system, you guys can track that down. I’m not gonna get into personal conduct. If I need to suspend somebody, I’ll make it well known.”

Clear as mud, it can’t be a good sign when the coach almost immediately segues into the honor code when asked about a player…

(Also actually had a very, very interesting quote about Wimbush)

Publius2010
Publius2010

I, for one, am interested to see an offense that contains no running backs

MikeyB
MikeyB

If somebody set the line at 6 games, I think I’d take the under. Miss the first 4 with suspension, plus half of the rest of the games with some sort of injury.

Russell Knox
Russell Knox

I feel like as long as we get good line play, and BW gives us effectiveQB play, the RB’s will be good enough. I know that’s a long t of ifs.

MikeyB
MikeyB

It’s really unfortunate, because this is the year where there are just too many ifs to be trying to break in new RBs. There’s no proven deep threat to stretch defenses. The QB is coming off one of the worst passing seasons for ND in a long time. And the O Line is still being shuffled. Sure would be nice to have a veteran like Adams back there. Or a Theo Riddick-esque player who can be a great release valve for the QB on passing downs.

Instead, we could be relying on a bunch of guys who have no experience at all at the college level. Fun!

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

“There’s no proven deep threat to stretch defenses.”

I mean, does Wimbush count? He should count, that’s probably his best attribute. Hopefully they can get him in space and to the edges of the defense and a running QB is always something that will stretch a defense and alter how they want to attack. Obviously QB carries can’t be 20 a game or anything, but still. To operate the offense Wimbush is probably going to be the best runner on the team.

I don’t disagree on your overall point though. It’s not going to be fun watching Jones get 2 yards and a cloud of dust this year, which we’re going to see a lot, I fear.

nd09hls12
nd09hls12

The good(?) thing about Wimbush is that we basically don’t have to protect him, because the dropoff between him and Book is fairly minimal (obviously the offensive style would change significantly, but overall production may not). So, realistically, they could give Wimbush 10+ designed carries/read options a game and not worry about it too much.

KG
KG

In the pass protection scheme, we can also afford to protect him less than some other QBs, because he’s more dangerous when he runs anyway. Give him 7-10 planned runs and 4-5 scrambles and there is our run game. These RBs may be…fine…but we’re a long way from having a top-level back. As much as I loved Adams (my son is still wearing my #33 trucking hat) he never stayed healthy enough to be in the national RB conversation for long. Williams appears to have the same bug, aside from the suspension. Jones is disappointing–lots of hype from reporter/podcaster types last Spring, very meh in games. Maybe one of the young ones will break out, but I’m starting to have very serious doubts about Autry Denson as a recruiter/RB coach in the long term.

MikeyB
MikeyB

Dex and Adams have been fantastic when they’ve been on the field. They were probably one of the top 3 duos in the country last year when healthy. I truly don’t know how much a coach can do to help guys stay on the field by avoiding injury, but it seems to me that Denson’s coaching has been fine. Even McIntosh was looking good.

irish_bandit_10
irish_bandit_10

I should have clarified. I think Denson has done a commendable job in coaching up the RBs the past couple of years. I do believe he’s a good RB coach.
That said, our RBs have benefited by running behind two Top-10 draft picks and the only contributor that Denson has recruited is Tony Jones, whom multiple people here have said doesn’t have a high ceiling. Denson is responsible for the whole position group, including recruiting. I’m not at all saying he should get canned, but I’m in show-me mode this year.

MikeyB
MikeyB

Coming off one of the greatest rushing seasons in school history, I’ve gotta think the RB coach is going to have a little more leeway, even if the recruiting hasn’t been there.

That being said, I don’t see any upside in this year’s RB group if Dex isn’t playing. If things get ugly, maybe Kelly cuts him loose. But unless it’s just a brutal campaign, I don’t see it happening. 2017 was too good.

KG
KG

“Even McIntosh was looking good.”
Sadly, we don’t have Nelson and Glinch anymore.

KG
KG

A coach can’t do anything necessarily about injuries. Dex, when healthy, was barely on the field. Perhaps if he had been, Adams would also save a few carries and be a bit healthier.

Publius2010
Publius2010

They were allergic to playing Dexter Williams. For some reason there’s always a player every season that gets underutilized, leaving Kelly to make comments about the need to get them more snaps as if he didn’t have that power as the head coach.

irish_bandit_10
irish_bandit_10

Denson and Alexander both. We’ll see how it turns out this year, but to this point, the offensive overhaul is way behind the defensive one.

KG
KG

Not to get all “RKG,” but at some point if we keep having kids suspended for the same stupid things, it raises questions about staff responsibility. Yes, kids do stupid stuff. No, I don’t think pot smoking is some horrible evil. But if it’s costing you a player for 4 games every year, and it seems like we’ve had at least one player suspended in this manner for the last few years (overtly or covertly, not to mention the forced transfers after the season), then there should be some mentoring by the coaches to fix what is a systemic problem. Are we recruiting kids with a tendency towards this? Are we not explaining that “hey, we may not like the rules, but since this is illegal in Indiana, it’s something we have to follow or you get suspended”? Are the coaches not talking to the players and finding out how they spend their time? I don’t know all the answers, and maybe they’re doing what is humanly possible. But when you have the same problem over multiple years with multiple kids, it’s not isolated. And for now, I think this is on the position coaches, as their primary recruiters and primary mentors. If they were producing AA backs and receivers, then perhaps this would just be the cost of doing business (winks at Florida and Percy Harvin). But our #1 receiver is Chase Claypool. Our #1 back is Tony Jones. Serviceable dudes, but overall we’re very meh.

MikeyB
MikeyB

Personally, I’d prefer they just do what most other schools do now: not make weed a suspension. The NCAA doesn’t mandate it. In fact, they don’t even mandate that you test. You just have to consistently enforce the policy among all students. It would be great if the school/athletic department changes the rule to basically just be an off the field disciplinary action instead of losing a quarter of your season. It would be great if the players made better decisions, but 18 year olds are just not great decision-makers.

KG
KG

That’s fine, but a separate argument. Given what the university’s rules are, there should be a bit more effort to stop doing stupid stuff. I agree, the rules should match the NCAA standards (which, if it means no suspension, then no suspension). But that’s not where we’re at. The coaches should be lobbying the admin to lighten up (though considering how far we’ve come since Kyle Mcwhateverney, they’ve been working on that) but you can’t just point the finger at the admin and say “oh well, guess we’ll lose 1-3 players each season for smoking weed.”

MikeyB
MikeyB

That’s fair, although I’d note he only had 2 runs over 35 yards last year. Man I wish we had Stepherson this year so badly.

irish_bandit_10
irish_bandit_10

How can Wimbush count for stretching a defense if he has to start each play 5 yards behind the line in the middle of the field? Wimbush doesn’t do anything to prevent a defense from putting 8 or 9 in the box. He might stretch a defense horizontally, but that won’t stop teams from adding safeties to run support. Stretching a defense, to me, indicates that the safeties have to stay out of the box and respect the pass first. I don’t see that until Wimbush proves otherwise with his arm.

I think a lot our offensive success hinges on whether Lenzy is good enough that defenses have to respect the deep threat when he’s on the field. If he actually is a burner and we can get cohesive OL play, then the team has a chance to be competitive. But realistically, we’re looking at an unproven OL, a bad passing quarterback, an RB depth chart equivalent to Kentucky’s, and two solid possession receivers with some other small guys that can catch the ball.
It doesn’t matter how good the defense is if the offense can’t stay on the field long enough for them to catch their breath.

All of that paired with BK’s historical inability to put together back-to-back 10-win seasons gives me absolutely no optimism for a Top-15 type of season. I’ll be thrilled if they finish Top 25.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

By that logic then no great RB can “Stretch a defense” because packing the box is the basic mentality to stop/limit any running threat. And I wasn’t so much talking about pre-snap alignments so much as getting to the 2nd and 3rd levels of the defense during a running play. Wimbush can and will do that a lot.

Wimbush as a runner will help the running game was my point. Notre Dame has bad/untested RBs but one positive factor they have is a talented and accomplished rusher from the QB position.

irish_bandit_10
irish_bandit_10

Correct. A great RB might stretch a defense horizontally, but not vertically. I think offenses are most effective if they’re able to stretch a defense in two dimensions as opposed to just one. Michigan State last year comes to mind. Great opening set with screens to stretch the defense horizontally, but it was the shot downfield to ESB that really allowed ND to use the full offensive playbook.

I agree that Wimbush, as a runner, will help the running game to some extent. However, even he was breaking off fewer big runs later in the year when teams sold out against the run. He can help untested RBs with his legs, sure. But his arm is the key to the whole operation. Even a modest improvement to 55% passing and hitting Lenzy or Claypool in stride over the top of a defense improves the offensive outlook tremendously. But teams are going to make him prove that he can do it before they take any pressure off the run.

Russell Knox
Russell Knox

Wow that is bleak.

KG
KG

“With Williams there’s been far too much smoke”
I mean, that’s the problem in the first place, I assume.