Irish Insider: Irish need to replace key pieces at skill positions
Connor Mulvena | Friday, April 20, 2018
Heading into the 2018-2019 season, the Irish have some holes to fill at wide receiver and running back.
Most notably, Notre Dame will be without one-time 2017 Heisman candidate Josh Adams, the team’s star running back last season who declared a year early for the NFL Draft. Adams rushed for a sterling 1,430 yards last season, and he also became the first player in Notre Dame’s history to register five games with over 150 yards rushing.
At wideout, the Irish lost key receiver Equanimeous St. Brown to the NFL Draft as well. St. Brown tallied 33 receptions for 515 yards and four touchdowns in 2017. On top of Adams and St. Brown, the Irish are without wideout Kevin Stepherson and running backs Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes, all of whom were dismissed from the team after the season — Stepherson and Holmes in connection with a shoplifting arrest and McIntosh in connection with a violation of team rules.
With all of these pieces of the puzzle missing, the Irish head into the 2018 season looking for a number of guys to step up at wide receiver and running back.
At running back, senior Dexter Williams and junior Tony Jones Jr. have shown promise in taking over Adams’ role this year. Williams, who struggled with nagging injuries last season, rushed for 360 yards and four touchdowns on 39 attempts in his junior year. As his injuries persisted and Adams found success, Williams took a bit of a back seat; but heading into this year, he is likely to be a central figure in Notre Dame’s backfield. Jones Jr., who struggled with injuries as well but was the squad’s second option behind Adams for most of last year, will also be key to the Irish backfield this season. Jones rushed for 232 yards and three touchdowns on 44 attempts last season.
Irish running back coach Autry Denson said he has been impressed with how much Williams and Jones Jr. have matured this year, and he feels confident in their preparation for the upcoming season.
“[Jones Jr. and Williams are] a year older … and they’ve gone through some adversity. I believe that everything happens for a reason,” he said March 27. “We were afforded a luxury last year for those guys — it wasn’t a luxury for them, but we were afforded a luxury that when they went down, we were still able to pick up and run with it.
“They know how to respond to adversity now; they’ve been through it. They’re a year older. They’re a year more mature, and you can see it in their preparation. You can see it in the way they attack the weight room. And we’ve talked about a lot of purposeful preparation in our room, preparing to play late in the season. … So I think what you’re seeing with [Jones and Williams] is because they have that experience now, they’re preparing with that intentionality.”
The team has also been giving carries to sophomores Avery Davis and Jafar Armstrong in the spring. Denson said Armstrong’s size, physicality and strength have stood out to him.
“Jafar [Armstrong] right now, you’ve been seeing him go between running back, and seeing him play receiver. He’s a big, physical, strong young man. … I hope I can get him in my room full time. I would love to have Jafar in the room, you heard it here first,” Denson said. “On offense, you’ve kind of alluded to the fact that there’s some new faces. So what that creates for us as an offensive staff is we’re doing a good job of trying to figure out how those pieces work together and putting guys in different situations to see how they respond, so that when we come back from the summer and move forward to the fall, you have a good idea of how all those puzzles are going to come together to make the perfect picture.”
Although Davis is listed officially as a quarterback, he has been getting carries this spring, and Denson emphasized that the team is trying to put everyone in a position to use their talents how they best can.
“Right now, again, we’re using the spring to basically put guys in position to use their God-given ability,” he said. “He can run, he can throw, we know he knows the position from a quarterback standpoint. He can catch pretty well. So we’re just trying to see what this offense is going to look like in regards to the different talent sets and the skillsets we have available to us.”
At wide receiver, the Irish will look to senior Miles Boykin, junior Chase Claypool and sophomore Michael Young as its leaders. Boykin tallied 253 yards receiving and two touchdowns last season, one of which propelled the Irish to a win in the 2018 Citrus Bowl. Wide receiver coach Del Alexander said Boykin’s conditioning has paid off so far this spring, emphasizing his quickness and explosiveness.
“I think that [Boykin] is using his talents daily. I think that every rep, he’s using his quickness, he’s using his size and length,” he said March 27. “He’s showing his explosiveness. And I think that comes from his conditioning and his experience on the offense.”
Claypool, who recorded 402 yards receiving and two touchdowns on 29 receptions last season, will also be key to the receiver corps this season. Alexander said it has to be about fundamentals for Claypool, day in and day out.
“Chase is similar to Miles. In all receivers, it’s about the daily commitment to the fundamentals,” Alexander said. “There is a little separation there that we talk about. If I were to go to Canada and try to line up and play football there, I wouldn’t know what ‘going in motion’ means. I wouldn’t know how wide the field is [or] ‘Hey, why is this upright here in the middle of the end zone.’ So we’re trying to work through some of the barriers, and before we get to that, we’re just talking about one day at a time and the fundamentals and the quick feet, and using the techniques that we’re teaching and adjusting to what you’re seeing in front of you.”
Young, who wasn’t as large a part of the wide receiver corps last season, will be asked to step up this season. Alexander said Young has grown a lot since his freshman year, and he has shown a lot of promise in spring camp.
“He’s out doing great things for us here in spring ball, and he has corrected himself on a number of things. And he takes the coaching,” Alexander said. “I think when he first came in, though, he thought it was — not ‘about me’ in a selfish way, but I have to control me. And he wasn’t as open to coaching. He didn’t see things as clearly as time went on, and as he became more and more eager to play, he started to listen a little bit more, and he started to see a little bit more. And that kind of freed his game up where he was able to make more plays.”
With all of these pieces at Notre Dame’s disposal for the 2018 season, it is now only a matter of who will step up. Williams, Jones Jr., Claypool and Boykin especially have some large shoes to fill, stepping up in the face of Adams and St. Brown’s departures. But as of now, it appears the coaching staff is confident in the assets at their disposal.