2019 Notre Dame Football Preview

Digital Edition

Blue & Gold Illustrated: 2019 Notre Dame Football Preview

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Page 55 of 163

54 ✦ BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED 2019 FOOTBALL PREVIEW RUNNING BACKS I n a college football world often absorbed by star rankings from recruiting services, Notre Dame's 2019 running back roster is somewhat unique among projected College Football Playoff aspirants. Not one of the five Fighting Irish running backs on scholarship was rated a four-star prospect by Rivals — never mind the rare five-star — coming out of high school. That is irrelevant when players such as converted three-star safety/wideout C.J. Pro- sise develop into a third-round pick as a run- ning back following his 2015 campaign, or three-star prospect Josh Adams can turn pro (though undrafted) in his junior year after a 1,430-yard rushing effort in 2017. Premier offensive lines — which Notre Dame seldom has problems recruiting — can help make quality three-star running backs into standouts. However, even head coach Brian Kelly ac- knowledged that perhaps the longest bridge separating his program from the first tier of college football is playmaking at the skill position. "Their skill was outstanding," Kelly said a couple of months after Clemson's 30-3 vic- tory over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. "We have to continue to grow in the skill area, and that's the next challenge for us to take the next step." Elation filled Notre Dame faithful this May when 2020 recruit Chris Tyree commit- ted to Notre Dame over Oklahoma and Ala- bama. The game-breaking speed merchant is ranked as the No. 1 all-purpose back in the country by Rivals, but he won't be available for another season. If there was a criticism of 2015-18 Notre Dame running backs coach Autry Denson, the all-time leading rusher in school history and now the head coach at Charleston South- ern, it was the inability to attract premier talent at his position. Lance Taylor, Denson's replacement, was brought aboard in part to help alleviate that issue, and the landing of Tyree is a superb start. Last year, the backfield situation was such that wide receiver recruit Jafar Armstrong and quarterback recruit Avery Davis (who has since moved to cornerback) had to be shifted to running back. Regardless, the cumulative 6.7 yards per carry averaged by the duo of Adams (2017) and Dexter Williams (2018) the past two seasons was extraordinary. Adams had the benefit of running behind a magnificent line led by top-nine draft picks Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, while also displaying underrated breakaway capabilities. Williams, though not a blazer on the track, had a func- tional gear for football. Such high yards per carry probably will be less likely in 2019, so efficiency and con- sistency will be imperative for senior Tony Jones Jr. (4.9 yards per carry in his career) and the junior Armstrong (5.3), the prime figures of the ground attack. The duo held down the fort last year when senior Williams served a suspension the first four games, and they combined for 171 yards of total offense per game and eight touchdowns during that time. In his final eight contests, however, Jones totaled only 27 carries. A knee infection resulted in Armstrong missing most of last October, and then carrying only 16 times in the final five games. Compared to 2017 with Adams and 2018 with Williams, it's unlikely one back will be called upon to carry the freight as much as those two did. ✦ BEYOND THE STAR SYSTEM Notre Dame ball carriers continue to emerge in various ways In his debut season at running back as a sophomore last year, Jafar Armstrong had the fifth-longest carry from scrimmage, blasting for 42 yards against Ball State. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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