Run It Back

As we round the corner into another offseason, the general sentiment around Notre Dame football seems to tilt towards a “rebuilding” year, given the departure of the school’s winningest quarterback, a Butkus award winner, nearly the entire starting offensive line, a bowling ball tight end and, of course, a generational defensive coordinator. ESPN’s cheeky way-too-early ratings slot the Irish at #15, below the likes of Washington, Iowa, Indiana, Southern Cal, Iowa State, North Carolina, and soon-to-be opponent Cincinnati. Whatever; I won’t push back too hard on the notion that the next squad won’t reach the same heights as its predecessor, given all those losses. But there’s too much returning (and incoming) talent to not remain in win-now mode, particularly given the fact that 2021 will almost surely be Kyle Hamilton’s last in an Irish uniform. (Part of) the good news is: Notre Dame brings back their most dynamic running back duo in ages.

Kyren Williams was a revelation for the Irish offense this year, even if he was slammed into stacked boxes a few too many times for our liking. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about how Brian Kelly refuses to play young talent, ND leaned heavily on a one-two punch consisting of a couple backs in their first full year of action. Recent history points to 2015 as the closest precedent, when C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams were the feature backs (Adams, like Chris Tyree, was a true freshman, while Prosise saw his first significant action at running back in his final college season). Statistical comparison is below:

While it’s unsurprising that the Prosise/Adams duo was more explosive, especially considering the unfortunate fact that Tyree received fewer than 100 touches (and Prosise’s prior experience as a hybrid wideout), the figures are strikingly similar, and bode well for the potential of the current Irish backfield. Since the quarterback situation remains unresolved, since Tommy Tremble is gone, and since wide receiver remains a team weakness until further notice, it’s crucial that Tommy Rees schemes up a creative offense that can get these two plenty of touches.

Continuing to develop Williams and Tyree in the passing game is imperative — not just as a contingency plan for another potentially subpar receiving corps, but to allow the Irish to go wherever they want with the ball, at whatever time, which is what great teams do. You don’t need me to tell you that Notre Dame has nowhere close to Alabama’s playmakers, but Steve Sarkisian’s offense proved time and again how effective compact, simple designs can be in creating explosive plays when executed to perfection. Ohio State also provided a clear example of how tight ends can be weaponized down the field, even against a defense of Clemson’s caliber. There are ways to open up this offense even if the receivers only take a moderate step forward — as ISD’s Jamie Uyeyama notes here, relying heavily on halfbacks doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of explosive plays; 2017 Notre Dame had 42 (!) carries of 20 or more yards. Fortunately for Rees, and for us, the blueprints are out there.

Assuming he stays healthy and wins the job, Jack Coan should be capable of executing Rees’ scheme; he just needs to be put in a position to succeed. If Notre Dame wants to be a run-first offense, so be it, but then logic dictates a much heavier reliance on play-action passing and a knack for surprising defenses on expected-run or pass downs. I’m not sure that’s even up for debate, especially with such high offensive line turnover — as solid as Rees was in establishing his offense’s identity during his first year at the helm, he needs to evolve and incorporate some new designs and points of emphasis moving forward. None of this is to downplay how important finding productive, game-breaking receivers is — it’s absolutely crucial — but it’s not all doom and gloom without the next Devonta Smith.

Williams was the only running back in college football’s top ten rushers (by total yards) in his first full year of action; as everyone knows by now, Tyree was a borderline five-star recruit Notre Dame beat out the sport’s elite for; the Irish have the pieces already in place to dominate opposing defenses with this talent. A couple things to note on that list of top 10 rushers: Kyren did finish with the lowest YPC rate of the group, but the only one to catch more passes was Najee Harris. Get Williams the ball not just between the tackles, but out in space, utilizing the blocking prowess of the team’s tight ends and receivers, and good things will happen. Now is the time for ND to (finally) hone a Decided Schematic Advantage in its screen game — more like that big gainer to Tyree we saw against Alabama, please. Notre Dame’s 2021 offense will surely ride or die with these running backs — all the more reason to spend the offseason dreaming up inventive ways to get them the football.

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