Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2022*

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 6 of 63 JANUARY 2022 7 BY PATRICK ENGEL N otre Dame knew it was a possibility life after Kyle Hamilton and Kyren Williams would begin before the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl vs. Oklahoma State. It was even more likely than not. The two stars and team captains are clear NFL talents. These days, it's common for early round draft prospects to start their prep earlier and forgo playing in bowl games. Williams and Hamilton — arguably Notre Dame's best players on each side of the ball — announced Dec. 9 they'll do exactly that. Without them, the Irish are down a 1,000-yard rusher and one of the na- tion's best defensive players. One of those absences is not only a change of pace, but an identity shift without the heartbeat of the offense. The other is significant, too, but it's also a continu- ation of the season's second half. Notre Dame will play its first game without Williams as its primary run- ning back since the 2019 Camping World Bowl against Iowa State. It will play a seventh straight contest without Hamilton, who hasn't played since the first quarter of the 31-16 win over USC Oct. 23 due to a knee injury. In a surprise, Notre Dame's defense avoided a dip without Hamilton — an All- American — manning one of the safety spots. A combination of senior DJ Brown, sophomore Ramon Henderson and soph- omore Xavier Watts filled in for him. Hen- derson has started the last three games. The Irish defense will lean on those three again in the bowl, which serves as another chance for each member of that trio to demonstrate his in-season ascent and further his case to start next year. Each has eligibility for 2022, though Brown has not yet said if he will return for a fifth year. At the beginning of the season, Hen- derson was a backup corner, Watts a deep reserve at wide receiver and Brown a No. 2 safety who struggled in 243 snaps in 2020. Neither of the sophomores played outside of special teams in the opener at Florida State. Brown's most notable moment in that 41-38 overtime win was a badly missed tackle on Seminoles running back Jashaun Corbin's 89-yard touchdown. Three months later, though, Notre Dame's defense would be in trouble without them. Brown has grown into one of the Irish's best tacklers, and his three interceptions are tied with Ham- ilton for the team lead. He has missed just one tackle since the opener, per Pro Football Focus. He has 37 stops this year. Henderson, meanwhile, made his first start Nov. 13 against Virginia and recorded four tackles, along with his first career interception. He moved to safety from cornerback the week of that game. Before then, he was used mainly in nickel and dime packages. Watts moved from receiver the week after the opener but didn't debut on de- fense until Nov. 6 against Navy. Since then, he has averaged 20.5 snaps per game and made 11 tackles. The running back depth behind Wil- liams has been similarly promising. Fresh- man Logan Diggs made his season debut Oct. 9 at Virginia Tech and has rushed 43 times for 201 yards and three touchdowns since then. A turf toe injury in that game to sophomore Chris Tyree opened the door for him. Even with Tyree back, Diggs hasn't gone away. Those two formed a 2A and 2B tandem behind Williams. Diggs out-carried Tyree 22 to 15 in Notre Dame's last four games, but the latter looks fully recovered from the injury and back to top speed. He took those 15 carries for 92 yards. If Notre Dame uses three running backs in the Fiesta Bowl, freshman Audric Es- time could get a look. He has played in 11 games but didn't record any carries until Nov. 20 against Georgia Tech, when he rushed six times for 61 yards in mop-up duty. Most of his action has come on spe- cial teams. Senior C'Bo Flemister's only three carries came against USC, and he has not dressed for the last few games. Notre Dame will miss Williams' un- surpassed toughness and pound-for- pound strength against the best defense it will face this year. Oklahoma State ranks first nationally in sacks per game (4.23), first in tackles for loss per game (8.5) and fourth in yards per play (4.41). The Cowboys will test Notre Dame's improved offensive line in a way no team has since No. 4 Cincinnati in early October. The running backs, in turn, might need to fight for every yard. That was Williams' specialty. He forced 96 missed tackles and averaged 3.5 yards after contact per carry over the last two years. This season, he averaged 3.71 yards after contact per rush and had forced 58 missed tackles, both top-15 in the FBS. Williams' and Hamilton's absence turns into an audition for the future at running back and safety, though their fill-ins have been positives in the present already. ✦ UNDER THE DOME NEXT MAN UP Notre Dame will turn toward familiar faces to replace Kyren Williams and Kyle Hamilton in the Fiesta Bowl Notre Dame will turn to freshman running back Logan Diggs to help replace Kyren Williams' pro- duction in the Fiesta Bowl. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER

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