Position Breakdown: Irish retain depth at running back in 2021
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, April 30, 2021
With both of its workhorse running backs from 2020 returning and the depth to constantly wear down opposing defenses, Brian Kelly’s run-first attack will likely remain the staple of the Irish offense in 2021.
Position Group: Running backs
2021 Depth Chart: senior C’Bo Flemister; juniors Kyren Williams and Kendall Abdur-Rahman; sophomore Chris Tyree; incoming first-years Audric Estime and Logan Diggs
Armstrong, who transferred to Illinois in January as a graduate transfer, served as a complimentary back for the Irish last season, contributing more through the air than on the ground. The senior rushed for just eight yards with a touchdown in a blowout win over South Florida and caught three passes for 38 yards on the season. Armstrong’s role diminished as compared to his junior season with the emergence of Kyren Williams as the every-down back for the Irish. After battling through an early-season injury as a junior, Armstrong rushed for 122 yards and had 97 receiving yards on 13 receptions, adding a score in the Camping World Bowl against Iowa State. Armstrong looked like a potential star for the Irish at the start of his sophomore season, scoring twice in the season opener against Michigan before missing three games with an injury. He rushed for 383 yards and seven touchdowns on the season.
Abdur-Rahman announced Wednesday that he will be transferring to Western Kentucky after entering the transfer portal earlier this month. The former high school quarterback out of Edwardsville, Illinois, was recruited as the No. 30 athlete nationally and No.7 overall player from his state in the 2019 class, but never made an impact in his two years with the Irish. Abdur-Rahman didn’t see game action in 2019 and switched from wide receiver to running back at fall camp in 2020. He appeared just once against UCF in his redshirt freshman season. He still has four years of eligibility with his new team remaining.
Smith made the decision to step away from the Irish and from football last October, citing mental health issues as the reason for his departure. A native of Sanford, North Carolina, Smith decided to transfer to Appalachian State in February and will have three years of eligibility remaining, after fall athletes were granted an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19. Smith saw limited action as a redshirt sophomore in 2020, rushing five times for 15 yards all against Duke in the season opener. As a redshirt freshman, Smith appeared in 10 games, rushing for 180 yards on the season and scoring twice in the season opener against Louisville.
Williams will once again be the go-to back for the Irish after bursting onto the scene in 2020. He is undoubtedly the most complete back on the roster and sets the tone for the Irish offense in Brian Kelly’s scheme which emphasizes physicality in the trenches. After seeing the field in just four games as a first-year, Williams eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark as a sophomore while averaging more than five yards a carry. He had 13 rushing touchdowns, the most in a season for the Irish since 1998, including three in a signature performance against Clemson at home last November. Williams also played a major role through the air, catching 36 passes for 316 yards and a score. Williams will provide whoever the Irish decide to go with at quarterback in 2021 with a reliable check-down pass-catcher out of the backfield. The St. Louis, Missouri, native also displayed toughness as a blocker throughout the 2020 season, constantly picking up blitzes to provide quarterback Ian Book with a clean pocket on passing downs. Expect more of the same all-around reliability from Williams in 2021.
Tyree certainly flashed his potential in 2020 but served mostly as a change of pace back to Williams. He had a solid year overall, considering the playing time he received, racking up 496 rushing yards and four scores. The former five-star recruit and No.1 all-purpose back in his recruiting class out of Chester, Virginia, still possesses elite speed and can take it to the house at any given moment. He broke off a handful of big runs in 2020, including a 45-yard scamper against Florida State and a 94-yard dash on a senior day against Syracuse. Brian Kelly also utilized Tyree as the primary kickoff returner in 2020. He will likely remain as a complimentary piece to Williams in 2021, but don’t be surprised if the speedster takes on more responsibility with a year of college experience under his belt. Tyree could be even more of a problem for opposing defenses if he continues to develop as a pass-catcher, with his speed and elusiveness making him the perfect option to exploit linebackers and safeties. The sophomore is primed for another solid campaign, even if he remains behind Williams on the depth chart.
Flemister will enter the season as the third running back on the depth chart, but proved in 2020 that he can be a reliable option for Brian Kelly’s team. After not playing much in his first two years with the Irish, Flemister had his best season as a junior. He rushed for 299 yards with five touchdowns and received a game ball after Notre Dame’s win over Boston College, where he rushed 10 times for 53 yards and two scores. Flemister won’t blow anybody away with his speed, but he is a physical bruiser in the trenches who keeps his legs churning after contact. He’s more than capable of toting the rock through a crowded pile in short-yardage situations to pick up key first downs. While Tyree can be the matchup nightmare, Flemister can be the back that continues to wear down defenses and open up the passing game, and he will continue to display more tough running in 2021.
Estime, a four-star recruit from Nyack, New York, likely won’t contribute much in 2021 but has the potential to quickly develop into a playmaker for the Irish. Rated the No.7 running back nationally and the No.3 player from his state by Rivals.com, Estime displayed impressive speed and elusiveness for a back his size, gaining more than 2,000 all-purpose yards while averaging 10.5 yards per carry in his senior season. He will have three quality backs in front of him on the depth chart to learn from and don’t be surprised if he redshirts in 2021. If Estime does see some game action, it could be an opportunity to prove to the coaching staff that he can handle more in 2022 given his ability.
Diggs, a three-star recruit from Metairie, LA, chose the Irish over LSU in early February, adding a fifth player to the Irish running back room. The No. 19 running back in the 2021 class according to Rivals, Diggs rushed for more than 800 yards on 132 carries in his senior season. He boasts a solid all-around skill set and displayed he can contribute as a pass-catcher and blocker. Diggs will have to scrap for any sort of playing time this year, but like Estime, could be auditioning for a more extended role in 2022.