An elite running back needs elite field vision.
The ever-confident Kyren Williams believes he’s already checked that box following his 2020 breakout season as Notre Dame’s running back.
“I have the best vision in college football,” Williams said. “I’ve always had that vision.”
Since he was a child, Williams was told by his father that his natural field vision was impressive. Williams’ confidence in that has only grown over the years. He wants to leave observers wondering how he saw what he saw.
“My main goal as a running back is to leave people guessing and wondering how he was even able to make that cut,” Williams said.
If the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Williams wants to make the leap to a truly elite running back in college football, Williams will need to make more of those cuts to produce explosive plays in the running game.
With one of the best offensive lines in the country in front of him last year, Williams showed he was capable of breaking a long run. Twice he gained 65 yards on a single run: once against Florida State on Oct. 10 and again four weeks later with a touchdown run to start the victory over then-No. 1 Clemson.
With two runs of 60-plus yards last season, Williams finished in a tie for seventh in the FBS in that category. But his quantity of long runs at shorter yardages didn’t stack up as high against the top running backs in the country.
Williams finished tied for 14th in carries of 10-plus yards (29), tied for 22nd in carries of 20-plus yards (8) and tied for 24th in carries of 30-plus yards (4). The leaders in those categories, respectively, were among the nation’s best running backs: Alabama’s Najee Harris (47), North Carolina’s Michael Carter (18) and Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson (10).
Williams showed last season he could make defenders miss in space and even make them look silly in the process. But to break the longest runs, Williams said, he has to make his move, accelerate and avoid the next wave of defenders.
“I have to be more consistent at the second level,” Williams said. “Everybody knows that I can break you down and I can make you miss. I feel like I have to do that every single time I get to the second level. Last year, that’s what stopped me from having those explosive runs, those 80-yard runs.”
Notre Dame’s longest run of the season belonged to freshman Chris Tyree last year. He sprinted through a 94-yard touchdown run against Syracuse last December. Tyree and Williams could make for an even more potent combination in 2021, because both won’t be making their first important carries of their college careers.
Tyree played as a true freshman last season. Williams was a redshirt freshman after receiving only four carries in four games as a true freshman in 2019.
“He’s well beyond his years,” Williams said of Tyree. “He came in his freshman year during COVID and played. He didn’t just play four games. He played the whole season. Chris is a really raw football player, so there is a lot of things that he knows that he has to work on such as the first contact and making the first one miss. He’s definitely getting better at that.”
Opposing defenses will likely try to focus on Williams after rushing for 1,125 yards and 13 touchdowns last season on his way to earning ACC Rookie of the Year and FWAA Freshman All-America honors. That’s why it’s important for Tyree to keep making strides as an all-around back.
It’s also why offensive coordinator Tommy Rees wants to use Williams in more unpredictable ways.
“For Kyren, because he has an innate ability in the pass game, it’s going to be how do we expand his role to maximize even more touches, to get him into even more space,” Rees said.
“We’re doing a lot of things right now playing around with him and the other backs, whether there are two of them in the game or we’re lining them up outside of the backfield. That’s the next progression in terms of how we want to play this year.”
Williams, who played wide receiver at times during his high school career at St. John Vianney in St. Louis, appreciates the different opportunities being presented to him.
“It gives me the ability to really showcase who I am as a player, because I’m not just a running back,” Williams said. “I consider myself an athlete and really just a ball player. I can play outside, inside, in the backfield, me and Chris can split it.
“With that ability, it really allows me to be out there and doesn’t allow teams to key on just one person. It allows us to open the field up and open the playbook up as well. This spring has been fun getting back into the groove of being a wide receiver playing in the slot again. I know what the workload looks like and what has to be done every day to be where I want to be.”
Even if that means being a decoy, Williams wants to fulfill his obligations to the offense. If running harder on a run-pass option or fake jet sweep opens a lane for someone else, Williams plans to put forth the effort required.
More deception may be needed if Notre Dame’s offensive line, which lost four starters to the NFL, can’t provide the same kind of blocking as it did last season. But Williams remains confident in a new offensive line. That’s just how he operates.
“It’s the same kind of confidence,” Williams said. “They’re still my teammates. They’re still the same teammates that were here last year. It’s not any pressure at all.”