Notre Dame entered the first weekend of the 2016 school year with three running backs accepted as capable of starting in Autry Denson’s backfield.
There’s reliable senior Tarean Folston, not yet one year removed from a torn ACL. There’s record-breaking sophomore Josh Adams, who’s seen limited contact this August while nursing a hamstring strain.
And there’s Dexter Williams, Adams’ classmate and the least experienced of the three. That lack of game time action last fall was not likely re reoccur in 2016, not after the unit’s fastest man impressed throughout training camp, earning added reps in his healing teammates’ stead.
“I think he is (already) taking those next steps,” said Denson of Williams’ rise up the depth chart. “I’ve watched practice. Again, he’ll never arrive. For four years at Notre Dame he’ll never arrive. I’m very happy with his progression but Dexter worked his butt off. He put in the work. What you’re seeing is that guy going above and beyond.”
That progress was stunted late Friday night by Williams’ well publicized misdemeanor arrests for possession of marijuana and of a handgun without a license. Whether Williams serves a one-game suspension or a suspension of far greater position impact, he doubtless faces a major test to return to Denson’s good graces.
Fortunately, the other three runners – freshman Tony Jones, Jr., included – are on solid ground.
“Tony is different, because Tony didn’t come from home,” Denson offered on Media Day (Aug. 17). “He came from IMG (Academy). It’s a totally different situation. A lot of the issues (freshmen deal with) have nothing to do with football. There’s homesickness. Football is the farthest thing from some of their minds, you don’t get that, but ‘I don’t have money’ (is an issue) ‘How do I open a checking account? I’m terrified.’
“But for Tony, he did that two years ago. He’s in a totally different category.”
So too, it appears, was the aforementioned Adams, who as a freshman last fall rambled for 835 yards, breaking Darius Walker’s 12-game mark of 786 yards (2004) and the 11-game record of 756 accrued by Jerome Heavens in 1975.
“Josh is as humble, quiet young man, but from the second day of practice last year, Josh had a swagger about him. Josh figured out really fast that he’s a special young man and he could play football at this level.
“His opportunity came later (following C.J. Prosise injuries), but that just speaks to the strength of the room and what we’re preaching that I want everybody in that room to fell like they’re that guy. The common denominator and mutual respect is that everybody works that way, so whoever is in there, there’s no animosity and they know their time is coming and the person out there also earned it.”
NO PECKING ORDER ALLOWED
Whether Williams returns to action tomorrow, after a trip to Texas, or after the leaves fall later this autumn, the Irish backfield will doubtless go three – and perhaps four contributors deep. That’s been the m.o. during head coach Brian Kelly’s six seasons at the helm, one definitively part of Denson’s overall plan of attack.
“That’s the only way I know how to do it. I’ve talked about running back by committee because it’s the right thing to do for them and it’s the right thing to do for us,” said Denson. “We want to put them in enough positions where they can showcase their ability, and I think you saw that last year. If God sees fit for a down the road future in the NFL, I don’t want them to leave their best carries in college, so we can’t just beat them up where there’ll be damaged goods.”
While Denson won’t talk about a No. 1 runner, there’s no doubt who among the group has the attention of the room.
“There’s no substitution for game situations. Younger guys, that’s what they respect. We’re playing football, and you earn your stripes by what you do in the game,” Denson said. “We know everybody has potential, but they see that and it allows (Folston) to have their ears.”
Denson noted that both Adams and even the less experienced Williams were constant in their summer and training camp roles as mentors.
“Tarean and Josh brought (Williams) along like he’s doing with Tony Jones, and the learning curve is getting shorter because you have more guys getting involved now,” said Denson. “You can learn all you want from a board, but until you run it...It’s a hands-on sport. You have to do it. I’m happy with the leadership role (Williams) has taken with Tony.”
Because of Williams’ transgression last weekend, and considering Adams wasn’t taking contact as of the last media practice viewing (Aug. 17), Jones might have to hit the ground running, so to speak.
“Tony Jones is another guy who has been completely stepping up,” said quarterback DeShone Kizer. “He’s fearless. He wants to run the ball between the tackles but he has the speed to get outside. He has that Florida mentality that if he does need to bounce it, he will, but if not he’ll go between the tackles and play good ball.
“This freshmen class on the offensive side is everything that we expected to be and quite frankly everything we need them to be with all the talent that we had leave last year.”
More talent might be missing for the season opener but the Irish offensive backfield appears equipped to handle the challenge.
THE THIRD MAN
Save for 2011, Notre Dame’s de facto third running back has made a major impact during each season of the Kelly era.
2010 – Robert Hughes (68-300-2): Peaked along with the offense late in the season, rushing for 190 yards and two scores over the final three outings.
2011 – N/A: Slot receiver Theo Riddick carried just 14 times as Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray ruled the roost. Riddick only joined the backfield following Gray’s senior day knee injury.
2012 – George Atkinson (51-361-5): Averaged more than seven yards per carry for the season highlighted by 99 yards and a score in Dublin and another 123 with a touchdown vs. Miami in Chicago.
2013 – Tarean Folston (88-470-3): Erupted for 354 yards and three scores over the final five contests.
2014 – Cam McDaniel (77-278-4): Led the squad in rushing yards vs. Michigan and Stanford en route to a pair of home rivalry wins.
2015 – Josh Adams (117-835-6): Broke Jerome Heavens’ freshman record after the squad lost Folston in the season opener and C.J. Prosise was injured intermittently over the final five contests.