Neither Dexter Williams nor his freshman classmate Josh Adams was projected to make a major impact in Brian Kelly’s backfield last fall. Save for a smattering of solid outings by rookie Tarean Folston in 2013, no true freshmen runner had emerged as a major player during the five-season Kelly era to date.
Season No. 6 was different.
One August suspension, one September torn ACL, and myriad C.J. Prosise ailments later, Josh Adams did just that while Williams (mostly) watched, and as such, it is Adams, not the more highly touted prep prospect Williams, that enters 2016 as a proven commodity and certain prime time contributor to the stocked Irish backfield.
Irish Illustrated’s A-to-Z preview of Notre Dame’s roster continues with Williams, currently third on the depth chart but a player with the talent to not only contribute, but to emerge in a lead role this season.
Why not? This is running back, a position where subs, starters, standouts and stars alike are separated by minute details. A block made or missed. A catch-and-run that ends in six points rather than 10 yards. A hole hit on third down. Balance kept rather than lost after breaking a tackle at the second level.
Securing the ball when opposing hands rip and strip.
Williams’ emergence as such is the best-case scenario for both the player and the program, because in this case, the term “starter” does not necessarily equate to a dozen games or even a handful of such assignments. If Williams is good enough to earn a nod or two as the season progresses – and not due to injuries suffered by Folston or Adams above him – the Irish backfield can meet or exceed the standard set by the 2015 crew last fall.
“Everybody in that room has to prepare like they’re going to be the guy. I don’t allow them to prepare like they’re a backup they wouldn’t be in that room if they did,” said running backs coach Autry Denson last spring. “They prepare like they are going to be the starter and that show last year. Josh (Adams) didn’t miss a beat. Those guys have to understand that throughout the course of the season, roles are going to change and we have to be willing to accept whatever roles we have, but the preparation has got to be the same.”
Lack of ball security. Lack of attention to detail. A missed blocking assignment. Hesitancy hitting the hole.
Folston and Adams have banked trust from Denson, Kelly, and the rest of the offensive staff. They’ll rightly receive the benefit of the doubt because the tandem’s body of work is readily apparent.
Williams still has to earn that, and attention to detail and focus on the task at hand is the only way to do so. He’s the program’s fastest and arguably strongest inside runner, but such enviable traits are often stifled in young ‘backs when they’re not confident in the responsibilities of what has become a much more difficult position to master in the spread, read-option era.
Spot duty as a freshman? That describes the majority of runners that have come through the program over the years, but in terms of running style, Williams is reminiscent of early 1990s position vagabond Willie Clark.
One of the nation’s top running back prospects and a bona fide blur once he turned the corner (4.29 40-yard dash in 1991 spring drills), Clark earned his first career start (at safety) at Tennessee’s famed Neyland Stadium late in his true freshman season and likewise started at safety in the 1991 Orange Bowl (The Rocket Punt Return Game).
He bounced between the Irish defensive backfield and running back during his four seasons in South Bend and was later drafted by San Diego in the third round, playing five NFL seasons including as a member of the Chargers in the 1995 Super Bowl.
DEVELOPMENT VS. RECRUITING RANKING
Williams was tabbed as a four-star prospect per Scout.com and as the nation’s 114th ranked player overall in the 2015 recruiting class. Among Notre Dame’s 23 players pledged in the ’15 cycle, only Alizé Jones (32), Tristen Hoge (48), Josh Barajas (51, Brandon Wimbush (71), Asmar Bilal (87), and Shaun Crawford (116) ranked higher.
(For the sake of reference, Josh Adams was ranked 199th overall.)
Williams is slightly behind the expected developmental curve by virtue of losing No. 3 running back duties to Adams last August. As a result, a strong season from Williams (meaningful yards and playing time in close contests) is key to his future development, though it appears he and Adams are poised to form a 1-2 punch in 2017.
WILLIAMS AT HIS BEST
He scored his first collegiate touchdown in a blowout of Massachusetts, a 14-yard sprint-and-score over the left side when the game was no longer in doubt. Williams best is likely yet to come, but this Blue Gold Game touchdown in April showcased his ability to run through scrimmage and cash in thereafter:
QUOTE TO NOTE
“Just get better without the football. We know he’s special with the ball in his hands but the next step for any running back is what you can do without the ball in your hands. Play-fakes. Making sure you carry out the fake. Making sure you can block. Making sure you contribute in the pass game via route running. Everything we train. He’s a year in so you’re starting to see the signs of his athleticism because he’s so much more comfortable as opposed to thinking.” – Denson on Williams’ progress during the spring.