Kyren Williams goes to the Los Angeles Rams in Round 5

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams (23) celebrates with fans after the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.

SOUTH BEND— Kyren Williams could have played another three seasons at Notre Dame had he chosen to do so. 

Instead, the star running back and spiritual team leader decided to jump to the NFL after back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, including the potential do-over COVID-19 year of 2020. 

Williams was drafted in the fifth round on Saturday by the Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Rams. His versatility, which included 675 receiving yards on 78 catches during his college career, offers added value at the next level. projected Williams as a sixth- or seventh-round pick heading into the draft. He went 164th overall, 150 picks after the Baltimore Ravens took safety Kyle Hamilton in the first round. 

Kyren Williams runs the 40-yard-dash during Notre Dame’s NFL Pro Day event on Friday, March 25, 2022, in South Bend.

Williams was just the third pick in this draft for the Rams, who gave up their seventh-round pick in a Saturday trade with the Las Vegas Raiders to move up 11 spots and select Williams. 

He joins a crowded backfield that already has former 2018 first-rounder Sony Michel, former 2019 third-rounder Darrell Henderson and 2020 second-rounder Cam Akers from the team that defeated Al Golden’s Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl.

Michel and Henderson combined last regular season for 1,533 rushing yards and nine touchdowns; as receivers they posted a combined 50 catches for 304 yards and four touchdowns. 

Akers returned from a torn Achilles suffered during the offseason to lead the Rams in rushing over their final three postseason games. However, Akers averaged just 2.3 yards per carry (117 total yards) with a long run of just 14 yards in that title push. 

As a team, the Rams’ rushing attack averaged just 2.3 yards per carry over those final three games: 82 carries, 186 yards and just one rushing touchdown.

Over the previous 17 drafts, dating to 2005, just three Irish running backs had been selected: third-round pick C.J. Prosise in 2016 and sixth-rounders Theo Riddick (2013) and Dexter Williams (2019). 

Williams, at 5-foot-9 and 194 pounds, viewed himself as somewhat fortunate to emerge relatively unscathed after 514 all-purpose touches in his two-plus college seasons, including some kickoff and punt return work. 

►Stiff arming his critics:NFL Draft: Notre Dame's Kyren Williams and the lost art of the stiff arm 

►Pro Day:Kyren Williams 'can't complain' after fine all-around performance at Notre Dame's Pro Day

“That’s part of the reason why I left,” Williams said at Notre Dame’s Pro Day on March 25. “It makes sense. Not too many reps on my body, all of that. Makes sense.”

Opting out of the Fiesta Bowl to prepare for the draft wasn’t held against Williams by his teammates or NFL teams. A bigger concern, it seemed, was his lack of blazing speed. 

He ran a 4.65 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in early March. That left him dead last among 27 players to run at his position group. 

When Williams shaved that time to a hand-timed 4.54 at his Pro Day, he was openly encouraged. That time would have placed him 18th among those timed electronically in Indianapolis. 

► First round:Baltimore Ravens take Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton at No. 14 overall in NFL Draft

Williams, who won’t turn 22 until Aug. 26, believes he is just getting started. 

“I don’t want to limit anything,” he said. 

What they’re saying

“He has the ability to pick and slide, change direction. He’s not necessarily an ankle breaker, per se, but he’s certainly shifty enough to make some yards on his own. He’s not going to overpower anyone. He’s not a pile pusher. But he’s someone who’s going to run up the middle and he’s going to fall forward. He’s not afraid at all to put his face in the fan in pass protection. He really takes a lot of pride in that. Everyone I talked to inside of Notre Dame said he has great football IQ – mature, tough, self-motivator. I think they’re getting a really good value. We know what he is. He’s a backup, rotational player and he’s going to help on special teams as well. He’s just a great football player and a great guy.”

-- ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay during Saturday's broadcast

“I think Kyren Williams is underrated. I don't care about 40 times for running backs. The quickness, the instincts, the vision, the breaking tackles, the blocking, the catching (are what matters). Kyren Williams is a good football player. I think he should be a fourth-round pick.” — ESPN senior draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. in late March 

Golden Notre Dame moment

That’s easy. It came last Oct. 30 at home in a 44-34 win over North Carolina. 

With the Irish clinging to a four-point lead early in the fourth quarter, Williams raced 91 yards to the end zone for the longest run ever allowed (scoring or otherwise) by a Tar Heels defense. 

Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams (23) pushes off North Carolina's Tomon Fox (12) before setting off on a long touchdown run during the Notre Dame 44-34 win over North Carolina in an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in South Bend.

Stymied initially on a play that was designed to go right, Williams reversed field and dropped UNC linebacker Tamon Fox with a trademark stiff-arm before racing down the left sideline. 

“That was one of the best runs I’ve seen in person,” Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan said after the game. “The look we got from the defense, it should have been stopped in the backfield. Somehow (Williams) made a play and got around and he just kept going and going.” 

Five things to know about Kyren Williams

► 1 — Larry Williams, his father, played linebacker at Northern Illinois and was named the Huskies’ defensive MVP in 2002. Kyren’s uncle, James Gregory, was a defensive tackle on Alabama’s 1992 national championship team but went undrafted in 1994. 

► 2 — Redshirted as a freshman in 2019. Team captain in 2021.

► 3 — Became the only two-time 1,000-yard rusher (consecutive or otherwise) in Brian Kelly’s 12 seasons at the helm in South Bend. 

► 4 — Finalist last season for the Paul Hornung Award, which goes to the nation’s most versatile player. 

► 5 — Also played linebacker and slot receiver at St. John Vianney High School in St. Louis.

Staff writer Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.