No longer underrated, can Kyren Williams become a complete RB for Notre Dame?

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Houston Griffith knows something about rude awakenings.

He favored the running back position in high school before becoming a Notre Dame safety. Moving from the Chicago Catholic League to the high-end IMG Academy was a whirlwind of sorts. Griffith, Notre Dame’s highest-rated 2018 recruit according to Rivals, has not secured the nickel back position like his coaches had hoped.

Griffith’s experience, however, continues to inspire Kyren Williams, ND’s 2019 commit that also endured a couple tribulations. The 5-foot-9, 205-pounder leaned on Griffith’s advice while emerging as one of the class’ top running backs.

The two spoke before Williams led Kirkwood (Mo.) St. John Vianney to its second MSHAA Class 5 title in three years, downing Fort Osage 28-14 on Saturday.

“He just took me under his wing, and ever since then, and then once I committed to Notre Dame, we really got closer,” said Williams, who befriended Griffith three years ago through the Midwest BOOM 7-on-7 organization. “Every time I went up (to Notre Dame), I stayed with him. I would be with him in the locker room.

“He FaceTimed me (Saturday) before the game to wish me good luck and see what’s up.”

A 5-9, 160-pound Williams entered the Vianney program as one of its smallest players. Williams listed himself as a slot receiver at camps. Until late March of 2017, Nebraska was Williams’ lone Division I offer.

The Golden Griffiths played him at receiver, running back, wildcat, defensive back and, yes, even punter. Even after Williams’ position switch last year, his activity elsewhere remained, limiting him from proving himself as a full-time running back.

Well, until opponents dared him.

Midway through the 2018 season, Williams garnered an uptick in bracket coverage. Two defenders would cover him inside and outside — or underneath and over the top — when Williams lined up or motioned to the slot.

“We would try to do quick screens, and there would be people immediately on him as he’s catching the ball,” said Paul Day, Vianney’s head coach. “…When we were looking at (his high yards per carry), we were asking where was the point where the production began to slow down a little. We never did find it.”

That epiphany persuaded Day to retool the Golden Griffith offense. Until the playoffs, Williams had not carried it more than 14 times in a game. He eclipsed that mark in three of Vianney’s final four games.

More touches? No sign of fatigue. Better competition? Did not seem like it. Williams went on a tear, rushing 82 times for 898 yards and 12 touchdowns during that span.

Williams entered the year aiming for a 1,000-yard rushing and receiving season. Less action at receiver — which Day estimated dipped from 50 to 20 percent of snaps — resulted in him totaling 725 yards and 10 touchdowns on 55 receptions. But on the ground, Williams eclipsed 2,000 yards.

For his career, Williams’ 112 touchdowns rank fifth all-time in the MSHAA. His 40 touchdowns this season could earn him Gatorade’s honor for Missouri Player of the Year. Williams’ final stretch — which brought him to 179 carries for 2,035 yards and 26 touchdowns — elevated him 132 spots on 247Sports.

Now a four-star, Williams may no longer be ND’s most underrated commit. He's ND's highest-ranked running back on 247Sports since Dexter Williams in 2015.

“He’s been so productive over the last couple years in so many facets,” said Steve Wiltfong, 247Sports’ director of recruiting. “He’s an every down back, a 200-pound-plus kid who can catch the football, beat you between the tackles and he’s a guy that can turn nothing into something and can light up the scoreboard pretty quickly.”

An every down back — that entails qualities Williams had not showcased before this season. Although, he never felt like he would translate as a gadget player.

“I want to be a running back that’s in on every play,” Williams said. “…I think I compare myself more to Dexter (Williams).”

Not Theo Riddick, nor C.J. Prosise — former Irish running backs better known for their receiving abilities. Williams idolizes Christian McCaffrey, the Carolina Panthers running back that can run routes, catch passes, run inside and outside the tackles and pick up blitzing linebackers.

The latter is a new development for Williams, Day said.

“I think he’s always been a sharp route runner, he’s always run the ball physically, but I think this year, he’s improved quite a bit in his running back blocking,” Day said. “He’s always been a good blocker on the perimeter, but he’s never really had to block in the backfield. He played so little there.

“This year, he took that role a little bit more, because it was thrust on him. Not because he was not doing it well before. He did a great job in pass protection, and he did a great job in (run-blocking).”

All of Williams’ future backfield teammates will have at least two inches on him. Williams’ highlights mostly feature his shifty cuts and elusiveness. But he also possesses a thick build and can squat over 400 pounds. 

“He’s so physical running the football,” Day said. “He’s not like a running back where he gets knocked out of bounds. When he goes out of bounds, he’s knocking people off their feet.”

Dexter Williams departing after 2018 will leave a void at the position. The Irish already had to move Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis to running back.

Yet, when Kyren Williams hosted head coach Brian Kelly and running backs coach Autry Denson for an in-home visit Monday night, they reminded him: he will be the only running back taken by ND in this class.

“That’s the main reason why I’m early enrolling,” Williams said. “I want to get up there a semester ahead and get prepared.”

Just like Griffith, who the Irish will be counting on in the College Football Playoff, did last spring.

“I did not even expect a 12-0 season at all when I committed,” Williams said. “I thought it would be a good season, but I did not expect a 12-0 season. Now that they are 12-0, I just hope that we can keep going and keep doing that for the next years.”

Williams developing into a complete running back could be a start.

Along with winning his second MSHSAA Class 5 state title, Kyren Williams finished the 2018 season with 2,035 rushing yards, 725 receiving yards and 40 total touchdowns.