Questions loom over the Notre Dame run game as 2018 season nears

Notre Dame's Dexter Williams (2) falls onto Daelin Hayes (9) during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring game in April in South Bend. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame running backs coach Autry Denson works in a drill this spring with freshman runner Jahmir Smith at the Loftus Sports Center in South Bend. (By Tom Davisof
Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly speaks with the media at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in South Bend this spring following a practice. (By Tom Davis of
Notre Dame quarterback Avery Davis works in a drill this spring at the Loftus Sports Center in South Bend. Davis is training as both a quarterback and running back. (By Tom Davisof
Notre Dame running backs coach Autry Denson works in a drill this spring with Jafar Armstrong at the Loftus Sports Center in South Bend. (By Tom Davisof

Facing Michigan in a season-opening football game will be challenging enough for Notre Dame when the two rivals battle in just over seven weeks. However, doing so without its most experienced runner – against a very, very good Wolverine defense – will make the task of making a statement nationally that night (Sept. 1, 7:30 p.m., NBC) even more difficult.

If you believe the rumors circulating around South Bend (and on the internet) the status of Fighting Irish senior running back Dexter Williams is not certain for the Sept. 1 game (or perhaps some later than that) due to disciplinary issues. However, veteran Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly didn’t definitively say one way or the other when pressed on the issue by the South Bend Tribune last month.

“We hope so,” Kelly said. “There are always things behind the scenes that you’ve got to sort out, but our expectations right now are that he’ll be there for us in the opener.”

If Williams is out, there certainly won’t be a shortage of athletes vying for his carries.

The Fighting Irish have a solid runner with some experience in redshirt sophomore Tony Jones Jr., but after that are a lot of young guys, specifically wide receiver Jafar Armstrong and quarterback Avery Davis, both of whom are cross-training at running back, that want to make a statement of their own.

“They are definitely pieces to this offensive system that we missed at times last year,” Kelly said this spring of the two hybrid athletes. “I think it gives us, as you saw, the ability to go with some split backs, which gives us a lot of options.”

Armstrong wasn’t 100 percent healthy this spring but he is expected to be next month when training camp opens and he has shown potential to make an impact.

“Armstrong was a little bit hobbled with a high ankle sprain,” Kelly said, “but we saw physicality in his ability to run. He’s strong. He’s really got some pretty good instincts and can catch the football.”

In terms of Davis, he remains the third quarterback behind Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book but he’ll have to fight off heralded freshman Phil Jurkovec this season and that might be too much to ask.

“He’s gotten a chance to play quarterback,” Kelly said of Davis. “The conversation we had with Avery is what do you want to do? If you want to stay in the position right now it looks like it’s 1A (and) 1B at quarterback and you’re 3. You can stay in that position or we think you’ve got some talent to help our offense and he wanted to do this.

“He doesn’t want to give up his ability to play quarterback down the road, but in the meantime, you know, you need to play this year and so this gives him that opportunity.”

The Fighting Irish will also have two freshmen competing at the running back spot in Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister.

Smith got a head start on his development by enrolling in January and he made a positive impression on Kelly throughout the spring.

“Very comfortable,” Kelly said of the youngster following spring football. “He came in as a mid-year enrollee and he’s done a great job in the classroom. He’s just a joy to coach and has picked up things really quickly.”

Jones Jr. played in 12 games last season and carried the ball 44 times, while Williams did so 39 times in 10 games.

Those two, the new athletes, each coupled with an offense that allows the quarterback to run, will force defenses to have to prepare for a number of athletes and varying styles.

“Avery is kind of a multi-dimensional guy,” Kelly concluded on Davis. “He can do a little bit of everything for us. Those two (Davis and Armstrong) give us more versatility than just having the two backs and the freshmen at that position.”

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