Mirror, mirror: Notre Dame RB Kyren Williams reflects, builds on a profound turning point

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame's Kyren Williams (23) celebrates a touchdown against No. 1 Alabama during the 2021 College Football Playoff Rose Bowl game  Jan. 1 inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

On the door to his room back in St. Louis hangs a mirror Kyren Williams had to face, wanted to reckon with every morning before he’d confront whatever the world had for him that day.

It was an integral part of the process that made a light-switch moment in the spring of 2020 stick, a quarantine revelation that the Notre Dame running back wasn’t a transfer portal escapee waiting to happen but a player about to ascend with still no ceiling in sight.

“It’s all a mindset,” Williams said in July, back in the flow of summer school and players-only-practices at Notre Dame. “It still is about that. My mindset has never changed since the end of the season last year.

“It’s always to be the best version of me each and every day. So when there’s work to put in, I’ll be able to make sure that my dreams come true. 

“That’s who I am. That’s how I want to live my life. I feel like if I just keep doing that, that’s going to lead me to where I want to be.”

Where Williams is heading into August training camp is a 5-foot-9, 195-pound junior coming off a rushing season (1,125 on 211 carries) 55 yards shy of one of the top 10 in school history. His 13 rushing touchdowns in 2020 were the most in a season by an Irish running back in the 2000s and four off the school record 17 shared by former All-Americans Allen Pinkett (1984) and Vagas Ferguson (1979).

Williams accrued six 100-yard rushing games for the 10-2 College Football Playoff participants, two short of the 10th spot on the Notre Dame career list. That included 140 rushing yards in the 47-40 double-overtime toppling of No. 1 Clemson, which featured the nation’s No. 15 rushing defense.

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams, shown here after scoring a long touchdown run against then No. 1 Clemson, was named ACC Rookie of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year.

His 35 receptions — for 313 yards and a TD — were sixth-most ever for an Irish running back.

That after garnering just five touches on offense — one fewer than third-string QB Brendon Clark — in 2019, when a dropped pass in that season’s opener at Louisville, didn’t just relegate him to a redshirt season but afterthought status on a team needy for running back depth.

The mirror’s role came to be in March of 2020, when the Irish players were sent home indefinitely following one spring practice as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. He spent roughly three months on lockdown with his mom, Taryn, and his sister, Grace.

It was in the first days of that experience where everything changed.

“I think when he came home and he saw — he wants to be the provider for us,” Taryn said. “He wants to make our life easy. So when he was home, he saw some struggles that maybe he hadn’t seen before.” 

“Being home with my mom and my sister every day,” Kyren said,” being able to live with them again. That’s when I realized this is what I love. This is who I want to make happy. This is who I need to make sure I can do everything for them. 

“I got that mindset. That’s when I started working the way I did.”

Every day when he looked in the mirror, he saw gradual signs of what that commitment could turn into. But also it reminded him of who he no longer was.

Every doubt, every negative emotion — particularly from people who wanted to put limits on his promise and his dreams — prompted Williams to scrawl on the mirror the pointed words and take them in as well each day.  

“Those were the reasons why he kept working to be successful,” said Taryn, in addition to being Kyren’s mom, his confidante and someone he calls his superhero. “He's not going to allow those people to say those negative things about him.

“So that’s what he would do. He would write everything down in the mirror and he would look at it every day when he got up and remember this is part of the why I’m out here busting my butt.

"It’s to show these people they are wrong.”

The jagged road to success 

Williams’ spring 2020 regimen is well-documented.

Lots of chicken. Lots of work days starting at 6 a.m. Lots of grinding. Lots of lifting.

“We borrowed weights from friends,” Taryn said. “We didn’t have any weights at home. We put together a schedule. And I think each day, Kyren, his sister and I just worked together to help facilitate what his dreams were.”

Grace, who will be a freshman college lacrosse player at Missouri Western this fall, was never afraid to get physical with her older brother. They played one-on-one tackle football in the front yard growing up.

And she was a willing human tackling dummy when Kyren needed to work on his tackling form as a second-grader new to the tackling aspect of the sport. The two used Grace’s mattress to facilitate that indoors.

“So slow motion at first, making sure he was putting his head in the right place, he was looking up, he was wrapping up,” Taryn said. “That went well. And as he got better, he got a little bit faster. 

“One day, he picked her up and put her on the mattress. And she stood up, and I was like, ‘Well what’s wrong?’ She spit out her two front teeth. Fortunately, they were baby teeth and they were loose and they already needed to come out. She was laughing

“But Kyren never took it easy on her and, to be honest, she never took it easy on him.”

Nor did Jerry Stanfield take it easy on Kyren.

Stanfield owns Excel360 Football Academy in suburban St. Louis, and he was Williams’ position coach at St. John Vianney High for all four of Williams’ years there. Stanfield has since moved onto De Smet High.

“Coach Stanfield has been my coach, my dog, since I got to Vianney my freshman year. He’s the one who got me to where I am. When I was in high school and not getting any (scholarship) offers, he helped me make my game more versatile and had me run all kinds of wide receiver stuff.

“He got me right working with older guys, older DBs, so I could get my releases and get my routes right. And he got me to play safety, and he was the one who was able to showcase my game and put on display what I was really able to do.”

And during quarantine, Stanfield was back in Williams’ corner.

It wasn’t an exclusive arrangement, but rather part of Williams’ layered comeback curriculum.

The two worked out three times a week, mostly on improving Williams’ speed. But Stanfield was also an important sounding board to help Williams work through the frustration of his early days at Notre Dame.

Those were not as well-documented as his rise.

Taryn shares that Kyren constantly wanted to come home to St. Louis during his first semester, as an early enrollee in the winter/spring of 2019. So she brought a little of St. Louis to him every couple of weekends.

“I never had to change the locks or anything like that, but he wasn’t coming home,” she said.

By the time the Irish opened the 2019 season at Louisville that fall, the homesickness had faded and all signs pointed to Kyren becoming — at the very minimum — a key depth piece.

But after the dropped pass in a 35-17 victory over the Cardinals, everything changed.

“The next game was a home game against New Mexico,’ Taryn said. “The whole family was going to be there to watch. My brother flew in from Florida. My parents. Myself. Everybody came in, and Kyren found out at practice before the weekend that he was redshirting.

“He had no idea this was coming. He was devastated when he found out. So we met with (running backs) coach (Lance) Taylor for an hour the next day. Gosh, he was super supportive. I think we probably talked to him for an hour that next day. It still was a slap in the face for Kyren, because he had never been put on the bench. That was probably the first time. 

“I think at first he kind of spiraled. He felt rejected. So he had to work through all those emotions of rejection — and then COVID HIT. He was working so hard at school, and then he called and he said, ‘Well, I’m coming home.

“I was like, ‘No problem, we’ve got this. We’ll figure it out.’”

Already Taryn’s brother, Kenyon Holmes — a former pole vaulter at Kansas — had researched 

different players who had made it to the NFL and who were similar body types and played the same position.

“Kenyon had all that printed off and went over it with Kyren.” Taryn said, “and really just showed him if you really want this, here’s what you can work on. That was becoming more lean. That was becoming faster. Those types of things

“After Kyren processed it all, he got home and we were all on board in helping. I just think to feel the love and support in the house definitely helped him get through it.”

The three months at home didn’t just transform Kyren Williams, it helped transform an Irish team heading into a sea of uncertainty, including whether there would even be a season because of the pandemic.

“I think what Kyren became was always inside of him,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said. “And now, Kyren’s the heartbeat, to be honest with you.

“His work habits are as strong as anyone we’ve had. His love for the game is as strong as anyone we’ve had. We said it last year, the way Kyren practices, it doesn’t really allow us or allow guys to really let up. 

“He’s not afraid to be vocal. He's not afraid to call people out, but he’s also got an extremely positive attitude out there. His expectations for how he prepares and how he works are so high that it naturally raises the level around everybody. 

“He’s a special dude. The one thing about Kyren is he’s really worked to put himself in this position. I think that automatically garners everyone’s respect.”

Reflecting on the next steps

Williams’ humility streak makes his proclamation that he thinks he has the best vision of any running back in the college game feel like a misquote, but he owns it when asked about it.

“I've felt like this since Little League,” he said. “My dad (Larry) told me I had the best vision he’s ever seen. And when I’m in the game and playing inside the tackles, you can really see that in my footwork.

“I just try to do everything in my life that way. When I drive, I’m thinking about doing cuts in and out of all that traffic. I use the vision thing for everything in life.”

In the mirror, Williams’ vision hints at the next steps for him. Rees talked about them in detail both during this past spring and in late June after the players had returned for summer school.

“I think it’s our job as coaches to always get our best players on the field,” Rees said. “You saw that last year with how we played. Whoever we deem those guys to be, we’re going to find a way to get them out there together. 

“Last year, a lot of it was about getting (tight ends) Mike (Mayer) and Tommy (Tremble) out there together. This year you’re going to see a little bit more of Kyren and Chris (Tyree). The good thing is both of them are mature and smart and can handle a lot.

“It just means, “Hey Kyren, if we’re going to have you and Chris on the field at the same time, we’re going to ask you to do different things. We're going to line you up in different spots.’ 

“So that’s something he’s hungry for and he wants to do and that we’ve had a lot of conversations about. He knows the system very well, so we can kind of plug him in and the expectations are that he knows how to operate.”

Tyree is a 5-10, 188-pound sophomore with track speed. A consensus four-star recruit out of Chester, Va., he was the first running back among the Rivals Top 100 prospects in a given cycle to end up at Notre Dame since five-star Greg Bryant signed in 2013.

Tyree was Notre Dame’s second-leading rusher in 2020, with 496 yards on 73 carries and four TDs. His 6.8 yards-per-carry average was the best on the roster among players with more than three carries in 2020.

“I feel like me and Chris are getting closer every single day.” Williams said. “As football players we’re close, because we’re going for each other. We're dying for each other. That’s my dog. That’s my running back.

“ I feel like off the field, there’s more of a Chris-and-me relationship. I love Chris. He brings good energy every time I see him. He’ll say something smart. He'll do something funny. He's definitely on the way up.”

Williams is determined to keep ascending as well, despite working behind an offensive line with four new starters and having a lot of new pieces in the complementary passing game.

“What’s out there for Kyren to improve upon is probably his mental performance,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said, “staying in his emotional zone. He's a kid who kind of sometimes gets too high.

“We’ve got him in a leadership position, so his vision is not going to change. His ability to catch, we’re going to continue to work on those skills. But this is really about the maturation of a player from an emotional standpoint and a leadership standpoint. 

“From what I’ve seen, he’s doing a great job there.”

Williams has a history of investing in transformations. When he was 2 years old, his dream was to be a cowboy, and he regularly dressed in full chaps and cowboy boots with metal spurs. Taryn said he even learned to ride horses bareback at that age.

When he became obsessed with then-St. Louis Rams running back Steve Jackson, Kyren commandeered a wig from Grace’s Dora The Explorer costume and wore it around under a Rams helmet that Taryn had bought him — along with a Jackson jersey.

“That was a dream of mine back then, to have my hair coming out of my helmet,” Kyren said.

When he was an elite catcher on a youth travel baseball team, Kyren insisted his parents buy him red catching gear to match St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina’s and requested that his friends, teammates and even coaches — including his father — call him ‘Yadi.’

“He cut his hair like Yadi,” Taryn said. “Whatever Yadi did was what Kyren wanted to do. And that goes back to how he was with Steve Jackson and the cowboy thing. When he’s in, he’s ALL in.”

Even beyond football, Kyren Williams knows what he wants his life to look like.

Notre Dame's Kyren Williams (23) celebrates a touchdown against No. 1 Alabama during the College Football Playoff Rose Bowl game on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

“He wants to help people,” Tayrn said. “God willing, he gets drafted and ends up playing in the NFL, but he wants to go back and help the youth who may struggle in their environment or may struggle because of a family situation.

“He wants to start a Big Brother/Big Sister type of program where he’d get involved with the youth, providing them with an outlet, whatever that might be. 

“Kyren’s big-hearted, so he feels for people. He wants to provide whatever he can to give back and help people become stronger.”

For now the focus is to help Notre Dame football become stronger. 

“I can handle success, because I don’t do this for the fame, the popularity, none of that,” he said. “I play football because I love the game and my family.

“And not everything you do is going to be shown, so it’s the little things that you do that people really hold onto and remember and cherish.” 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI