Position Group Breakdown: Running Back
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, April 17, 2020
There is a lot of excitement around the running back position ahead of the 2020 football season. There is plenty of talent returning from 2019, and the Irish will also welcome one of their most highly touted running back recruits in recent memory as they look to improve on a relatively disappointing performance on the ground last season.
Position group: Running Back
Depth Chart: freshman Chris Tyree; rising sophomore Kyren Williams; rising juniors Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister; rising seniors Avery Davis and Jafar Armstrong
Key 2019 Departures
Tony Jones Jr.
Jones Jr. emerged as the top running back for the Irish in 2019 after then-junior Jafar Armstrong went down with an injury on the opening drive of the season opener at Louisville. Jones had 144 carries on the season for a net total of 857 yards, which was good for 6.0 yards per carry. Jones also recorded six touchdowns on the season, which included an 84-yard TD run in the Camping World Bowl against Iowa State.
At 224 pounds, Jones did not have electric speed for a running back, but he was very reliable for getting a few yards on short down situations, he never fumbled the ball and he performed very well in a pass-blocking capacity. His top performance of the season arguably came against USC where he had 25 carries for 176 yards. No other running back on the Irish roster has shown that they can handle that volume, and they will need someone to step up and replace Jones.
Key 2020 Contributors
Heading into the 2019 season, the converted wide receiver Armstrong was the clear favorite to be the lead back for the Irish. His season was derailed, however, by an early season injury against Louisville that forced him to miss the next four games. Even after he returned mid-way through the season, Armstrong did not perform at the same level that he did in 2018. In fact, Armstrong only recorded 46 carries for a net 122 yards on the year (an unflattering 2.7 yards per carry) and one touchdown.
Armstrong’s numbers in 2018 were much better, as he recorded 383 yards on the ground and seven touchdowns. He also showed great promise in the passing game by recording 159 receiving yards off of 14 catches. Despite his disappointing 2019 campaign, Armstrong will likely be Notre Dame’s top back in 2020, that is, if he can stay healthy.
A knee infection and some ankle issues limited him to only 10 games as a sophomore and caused his numbers to trail off at the end of the season. Last year he appeared in nine contests, carried the ball in eight (once with a net -4 yards against USC) and had only three games with more than three carries. His versatility in the pass game will be nice, but whether or not he’ll be durable enough to last all 12 games is yet to be seen.
Davis’ career at Notre Dame has been an enigma. He was recruited as a quarterback in the 2017 class but was moved to running back in the 2018 season due to a need for bodies at the position. He rushed for 70 yards on 22 carries and recorded 30 receiving yards on five catches in nine games that season, but was subsequently moved to cornerback prior to the 2019 season as that position needed depth.
However, after then-sophomore-to-be Kevin Austin was unofficially suspended that offseason, and Armstrong went down in the season opener, Davis was moved back to the offense as a wide receiver. He caught 10 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. Now his position is once more in question. With the wide receiver position in better shape and running backs traditionally plagued by injury, and having shown the ability to contribute offensively, Davis will likely work either out of the backfield or running routes for the Irish next season.
Flemister was a pleasant surprise for the Irish in 2019, as he recorded a 162 yards on the ground on 48 carries. Flemister also recorded five touchdowns last season, showing that he has the ability to find the endzone when his number is called. Flemister slowly worked his way up the depth chart throughout the year in 2019, and it is definitely possible that he could use that momentum to work himself to the top of the depth chart in 2020. At 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, Flemister has a good physique to serve as both an explosive runner or a workhorse in redzone.
Williams preserved his redshirt by playing in only four games in 2019, but only had four carries on the season. Although Williams might not have been ready to play at the college level in 2019, it is very likely that 2020 could prove to be a breakout season for him. The four-star class of 2019 recruit was the 24th ranked running back in his class per 247Sports.com, and he definitely has the talent to make a move up the depth chart. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, Williams has the size and speed to be a solid running back and pass catcher for the Irish.
Nobody really knows for sure where Smith is on the depth chart ahead of the 2020 season or what to expect from the junior back. In 2019, Smith had the second-most yards of any running back with 180 on 42 carries. Smith showed flashes last year, especially in the season opener against Louisville. With Armstrong sidelined unexpectedly, Smith stepped up and recorded his only two touchdowns of the season that night. Aside from the Louisville game, Smith performed well against Duke, tallying eight carries for 58 yards. Despite these flashes, though, Smith will have to improve if he is going to reach the level of Armstrong and Flemister and beat out the young talent of Williams and Chris Tyree.
Tyree is arguably the biggest running back recruit to attend Notre Dame since the 1990s, and he will be expected to contribute during his freshman year. The native of Chester, Va. chose Notre Dame over the likes of Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma. The four-star recruit is listed at 5-foot-10 and 179 pounds, and caught the eyes of recruiters for his blazing fast speed — speed which won him a state championship in the 55-meter dash and 4×200-meter relay.
In his four years of high school football, Tyree averaged around 100 yards per game and nearly nine yards per carry. He also showed in high school that he has the ability to return kick offs, which is something the Irish have not had in years. The coaching staff will have to decide how much to use Tyree in his freshman season, but it is likely that he gets involved with the offense immediately whether that is as a running back or returning kicks.
Hayden Adams — Sports Editor
The Observer’s previous sports editor, Connor Mulvena, said, in our final Basement Breakdown podcast of the year, “I just want the Notre Dame offense to have an identity, [and] personally I want that identity to be ‘run the ball; and run the ball, and run the ball, and run the ball and run the ball.’” As much as I hate to admit it, Connor’s right. This team couldn’t run the ball last season, and it may be because I was spoiled by having Quentin Nelson and Mike McGlinchey on 2017’s offensive line, but I put more blame on the lack of push they gave the running backs last year.
That said, Tony Jones Jr.’s 6.0 yards per carry didn’t translate into scores on the ground, and the lack of elite speed or explosiveness in 2019 was apparent. Chris Tyree and a more experienced Kyren Williams should help shore up the athleticism, and C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith bring some power, but with Jafar Armstrong’s injury history I don’t see him leading this group like Josh Adams or Dexter Williams did just a couple of years ago. If the Irish want to be a College Football Playoff team, then they need to be able to pick up 3-4 yards per carry against teams such as Georgia (which they couldn’t last year) and Clemson (which they couldn’t in 2018 and whom they will face this season). A lot hinges on this position, and I just don’t see it being up to snuff in 2020, but I hope I’m proven wrong. B-
Nate Moller — Sports Writer
I am very excited to see what this running back group does in 2020. If Armstrong can stay healthy, I fully anticipate him to be the lead back for the year. I expect Armstrong to put 2019 behind him and build off of his unexpected success from 2018. The supporting cast around Armstrong will need to develop if they are going to make an impact. Flemister and Smith have some experience and showed some positive signs last year, but they will have to improve if they are going to run the ball effectively against teams like Wisconsin and Clemson that have a stiff run defense.
Depending on how the young talent of Tyree and Williams develops in 2020, this running back group could be one of the best the Irish have had in recent years. However, not having Spring practice hurts Williams a lot, and if there is limited Summer practice due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both of these guys might not be ready to compete at the college level. Because of this uncertainty, I expect the Irish to be solid at the running backs position, but not elite. B
Liam Coolican — Sports Writer