In their words: Notre Dame coaches address Fighting Irish run game

Notre Dame senior running back Dexter Williams works with Fighting Irish running backs coach Autry Denson during a recent practice at the Loftus Sports Center in South Bend. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame redshirt freshman athlete Jafar Armstrong
Notre Dame redshirt sophomore running back Tony Jones Jr.
Notre Dame freshman running back Jahmir Smith works with Fighting Irish running backs coach Autry Denson during a recent practice at the Loftus Sports Center in South Bend. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame redshirt freshman athlete Avery Davis

SOUTH BEND – A lot of attention will be paid to the play of Notre Dame quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m., NBCSN), but also ranking in importance will be the play of the running backs, which are now without the services of 2017 star Josh Adams.

“I’ve got a better idea of some of the areas that need to continue to develop and some of the areas that I think I’ve seen pretty good progress through the spring,” Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly said recently. “I like our running back situation. It continues to strengthen.”

Last fall was a mixed bag of positivity and negativity regarding the position.

Notre Dame battled through injuries to Adams, as well as back-ups Dexter Williams and Tony Jones Jr., but still managed to have a record-setting season on the ground.

The Irish set new standards for single-game rush yards per carry (10.1 yards per rush against Boston College), single-season rush yards (3,503) and single-season rush yards per carry (6.3 yards per rush).

Here are some thoughts from the Notre Dame coaching staff on the Irish runners heading into the annual spring game.

Dexter Williams

Year: Senior

Height: 5-foot-11

Weight: 203 pounds

2017 numbers: 360 yards rushing, 9.2 yards per carry, four touchdowns, two receptions for 13 yards and one touchdown

Brian Kelly: “It starts with Dexter and his ability to maintain himself in a position where he can be on the field for all three downs, that is pass protection, play-action fake, and all of the little detail things that go along with playing the position. That is something that he has been below the line on.

“He has shown this spring that he understands how important that is and he has been above the line on those things. His play-action fakes, his protections, releases, all of the nuances of the offense other than ‘Just give me the ball.’ He’s done a nice job.”

Tony Jones Jr.

Year: Redshirt sophomore

Height: 5-foot-11

Weight: 220 pounds

2017 numbers: 232 yards rushing, 5.3 yards per carry, three touchdowns, six receptions for 12 yards

Brian Kelly: “Tony has been really, really steady in everything that he has done. He is healthy, very coachable, so we like that combination (of Williams and Jones) right now.

“I think his strength in work volume is better than it was last year. That’s going to prove itself to be probably equally as important because he’s going to stay healthy. He wasn’t healthy most of the season as well. He is stronger. He’s got a coat of armor on him. His work volume is better and finally, we recognize how important he is and we have to make sure he gets the proper touches within this offense.”

Jahmir Smith

Year: Freshman

Height: 5-foot-11

Weight: 200 pounds

Note: Smith is a true freshman that enrooled early in January.

Autry Denson: “He’s young. But he is a physical, big kid. He is retaining information really good and really fast. That is very encouraging because right now, every one of those guys we are relying on to play.

“So he is doing a great job of retaining information, a great job of just going out and playing football and trusting the process right now.”

Jafar Armstrong

Year: Redshirt freshman

Height: 6-foot-1

Weight: 213 pounds

Note: Armstrong is cross-training at both wide receiver and running back

Chip Long: “Jafar was doing well when we first started, but he’s been hobbled with an injury. We haven’t gotten to see much of him the last few practices, but he is another explosive, big guy, who is good with the ball in his hands.

“The more that he gets healthy; we’ll be able to get a good evaluation.”

Avery Davis

Year: Redshirt freshman

Height: 5-foot-11

Weight: 203 pounds

Note: Davis is cross-training at quarterback, wide receiver and running back

Chip Long: “He is an explosive young man, who picks things up really quick. He has really good instincts as a route runner when he is out there. You can tell that by playing quarterback, he’s like that.

“He can make guys miss. He has really surpassed my expectations. This last week, he’s probably been one of the more explosive players on our offense that we’ve had.”

For more on college football, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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