Notebook: Williams makes it three's company in backfield
SOUTH BEND — When pressed to assess the depth chart battle at running back between 2014 starter Tarean Folston and 2015 revelation Josh Adams, Brian Kelly interrupted and interjected.
“Dexter too,” the Notre Dame head football coach asserted Friday after practice No. 7 of 15 this spring. “Dexter’s part of that.”
Dexter is sophomore Dexter Williams, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound Floridian who was essentially a safety-net option at running back last season. He cobbled together 21 carries and 81 rushing yards through seven cameos last season, none in high-leverage situations.
That’s changed this spring, which initially was hardly unexpected. Spring football typically is a time for red-herring story lines, with an average shelf life of about a week. And a purportedly transformed Williams seemed to fall in line with that.
The difference this spring is that he and some of the other ascenders have staying power. Early-enrolled freshman wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, for instance, continues to impress consistently. So does freshman safety Devin Studstill, still the No. 1 free safety.
With Williams, it’s not so much about getting to the top of the depth chart as it is establishing a time share with sophomore Adams, coming off the most prolific rushing season by a freshman in school history (835 yards, 7.1 per carry, 6 TDs), and senior Folston, coming back from an ACL tear that truncated his 2015 season three carries into it.
Folston was ND’s leading rusher in 2014 (889 yards, 5.1 per carry, 6 TDs). Last year’s leading rusher, C.J. Prosise (1,032 yards, 6.6 per carry, 11 TDs), opted for an early entry into the NFL Draft.
“Dexter has the speed that we’re looking for, so it’s really all three of those guys in balancing their rep work,” Kelly said.
Folston, meanwhile, looks fast and fluid in his return to the running back rotation.
“It’s always been about, for him, attention to detail, physical conditioning, strength — all of those things,” Kelly said. “I think he’s working hard at it.
“He’s made great progress in the weight room, and I think the realization (that) his game is one where you are being challenged now by some younger players has really been good for him. I think the competition has brought out the best in him.”
Rush hour arriving?
The hopes and strong hints from the Irish coaches that freshman Daelin Hayes could be part of the solution to a tepid pass rush took more tangible form Friday at practice.
The 6-foot-4, 257-pound got elevated to second-team reps and showed an impressive burst on the edge in pass-rush drills during the 45-minute media viewing window.
He and converted defensive tackle Jay Hayes (no relation) are backing up junior Andrew Trumbetti at rush end. Last season the Irish ranked 75th nationally in sacks (out of 127 FBS teams) and 109th in turnovers gained.
“We’re seeing more consistency, now that he’s at a position where he feels a lot more comfortable,” Kelly said of the 6-3, 285-pound Jay Hayes, who redshirted as a sophomore last season.
As for Daelin Hayes, there’s a balance between protecting his surgically repaired shoulder and getting him meaningful reps. He does suit up in full pads, but Kelly said Hayes plays with a shoulder harness and is held out of contact, for the most part.
“We’re going to pick our spots with him,” Kelly said. “We’re going to put him in a position where we can see some things from him, but I don’t think we’re going to overdo anything.”
The prognosis was that senior wide receiver Corey Robinson would be back from a concussion on Wednesday, after the Irish took six days from spring practice for Easter Break. But Friday, he started on the exercise bike and finished practice as a bystander.
Kelly said ob Friday that Robinson is scheduled to see a specialist next week.
“He’s had a couple of concussions, so obviously we want to do everything we can to get him all the information necessary,” Kelly said, “so we won’t put him in a position where he doesn’t feel comfortable getting back on the field.”
The left side of the Notre Dame offensive line — senior tackle Mike McGlinchey and junior guard Quenton Nelson — along with junior center Sam Mustipher looks more and more like reloading than rebuilding with each passing day.
So too does the right side, even though the roles there are unsettled. The latest look, and one that will get some play up until the Blue-Gold Game spring wrap-up on April 16, is having junior Alex Bars move back outside to his natural tackle position and kicking senior tackle Hunter Bivin inside to guard.
“We love the competition that is going on, on the right side,” said Kelly of the starting mix that still includes senior guard Colin McGovern and sophomore guard/center Tristen Hoge.
Meanwhile, as the Irish were stretching prior to practice Friday, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand was chatting up his latest prodigy, incoming freshman tackle Tommy Kraemer. The top 50 prospect from Elder High School in Cincinnati arrives for good in June.