SOUTH BEND – There are a lot of questions surrounding the 2017 edition of Notre Dame football.
Will the Fighting Irish run defense be a sieve like it was in 2016?
Will first-time starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush please or disappoint the Irish Nation?
Will veteran Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's seat get any hotter than it already is following last year's stunning 4-8 debacle?
However, one question that isn't on the forefront of the minds of the Notre Dame fan base is concern over the depth at running back. Without question, the Irish are locked and loaded with talented – and versatile – ball carriers.
Notre Dame returns juniors-to-be Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, who combined for nearly 1,200 yards on almost 200 carries last season – and that was behind a sometimes suspect offensive line. But Kelly spoke recently in glowing terms of a young runner who has yet to get on the field for the Irish.
“He's 225 pounds,” Kelly said of redshirt freshman Tony Jones, Jr. “He can catch the ball coming out of the backfield. He's assignment correct, can run elusively and can get into the second level.
“What does that equal?”
It equals a lot for new Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long, who is as creative in thought as it relates to formations and execution, as he is young.
Adams, Williams were productive last season, but still had room for growth.
Neither were exemplary as pass catchers (25 total receptions between the two) and that will have to improve this season, but they both brought positive attributes to the point that former Irish runner Tarean Folston chose to leave for the NFL rather than compete in the crowded backfield.
Adams brings home run speed and size (220 pounds), while Williams got in better shape (he dropped eight pounds to 202), but still needs to improve in his blocking and pass catching.
As Kelly noted, Jones has speed and power, and can catch the ball. He'll more than likely begin the season as the third back in the rotation (which could also include freshman C.J. Holmes), but because of his versatility, Jones Jr. could be utilized in a myriad of packages, including red-zone calls.
“He's a pretty good back,” Kelly said.
During a recent practice, Kelly had Jones Jr. getting some repetitions with the first group of Irish players.
“He's a good player,” Kelly said.
Holmes out for now
After enrolling early this winter, Holmes recently suffered a shoulder separation, which will set him back for the remainder of the spring. It was the second time that he has injured that shoulder in the past four seasons.
The freshman has the versatility to be put into packages as either a runner or receiver, which is something that Long implemented as coordinator at Memphis last season.
Let 'em get hit
In wake of last year's disappointing season, Kelly reassessed every facet of his program, including how his team practiced. One of the areas that he felt his team lacked last fall was in its physicality, so he has allowed certain position groups – running backs being one – to get hit some this spring.
“When you look at what we're doing,” Kelly explained, “in every phase, there are improvements, I think, across the board. Every year you look at where you can get better in your practices.
“I think we need to tackle a little bit more. I thought we were a little soft in our practices. Our (running backs) need to get hit a little bit. I've made sure that that is part of our practice routine that had been missing.”
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