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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Irish running backs show promise as team looks to replace Josh Adams

What do you do when the inspiration for a whole branding of a Heisman campaign — complete with hats and a hashtag — leaves school early, declaring for the draft?


That is what the Irish have done this spring at the running back position. Although no one has shown the same consistent explosiveness as Josh Adams did last season, no one appeared to show that same ability to sneak through the line of scrimmage at last year’s Blue-Gold Game either, not even Adams himself. However, there certainly were several silver linings for Notre Dame’s offensive scheme at this year’s spring game — most notably, senior running back Dexter Williams.

Irish senior running back Dexter Williams looks to make a move on the perimeter during Notre Dame’s 38-20 loss to Stanford on Nov. 25 at Stanford Stadium.
Irish senior running back Dexter Williams looks to make a move on the perimeter during Notre Dame’s 38-20 loss to Stanford on Nov. 25 at Stanford Stadium.

“I think for Dexter, it was really more about can he pick up the nuances of our offense relative to pass protection? That was a big thing for us,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “ … And then how long can you stay on the field? He seemed to be a guy that we couldn't keep on the field very long. … [After] a really good spring, he wasn’t a guy that we had to pull out or wasn’t conditioned well enough.”

Appearing in 10 games last season, Williams will be asked to emerge out from the shadows of his former classmate, distinguishing himself as a primary ball carrier in his final season for the Irish. His team-high 117 yards set the tone for this year’s contest, as the offense scored 47 points Saturday. Perhaps this fast-paced offense was in part due to the modified layout of the game, where teams were no longer two-sided, and instead competed as an offensive and defensive units.

After a relatively unremarkable first half of short, mostly lateral runs — where the absence of Mike McGlinchy and Quenton Nelson was evident on the offensive line — Williams eventually found a hole to explode through. In the opening drive of the second half, he took the snap on 2nd-and-13 and bolted down the right hash of the field for 72 yards before being brought down out of bounds, six yards short of the goal line. This run set up a touchdown just moments later, but the real takeaway of the drive was that the Irish run game is still very much alive.

Williams wasn’t alone in his performance, however. Freshman Jahmir Smith showed promise in the backfield, running for 29 yards on five carries and hauling in a 19-yard catch.

“He’s been like that all spring, very comfortable. … [He’s] just a joy to coach and has picked up things really quickly,” Kelly said of Smith.

Sophomore Avery Davis and junior Tony Jones Jr. also played big roles in the spring game, as they combined for 19 carries and averaged 2.7 and 2.5 yards per carry, respectively. Davis, recruited as a quarterback, is coming off a freshman season in which he did not see the field and has been taking snaps as a ball carrier this spring to give him more opportunities to make an impact.

“It’s definitely more physical. ... You take more hits,” Davis said of playing running back. “It’s a dream to be able to make plays at Notre Dame.”

Davis also said the experience he’s gaining at running back has helped his confidence as a quarterback.

“I’m looking at the field … at the defense from a whole new perspective,” he said. “I have a much better understanding for my receivers.”

All four backs showed moments of distinction, but Williams appeared the most comfortable reading the defensive schemes. Despite this, Kelly avoided committing to a starter at the position, saying the team will “go with the guy that’s playing really well.” 

Without Adams, McGlinchey and Nelson in 2018, the run game will likely be very different this upcoming season, with many different players providing different dimensions. But Saturday’s game gave the Irish reason to believe they have the pieces in place to still find success running the football.