Notre Dame RB Dexter Williams aims for increased role in revamped Irish offense

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Dexter Williams probably didn’t know that his analysis of Notre Dame’s offense would draw simultaneous rounds of applause and skepticism from Irish football fans.

But with just one sentence, the junior running back hit a line that was certain to spawn a reaction.

“We run the ball a lot more in this offense,” Williams said.

It was the first sentence he uttered when asked to describe the biggest difference between the offense being installed in Notre Dame’s preseason camp and the one utilized in last season’s 4-8 campaign.

New offensive coordinator Chip Long will formally debut his spin on the Irish offense in the Sept. 2 season opener against Temple. Williams may be biased, but he’s expecting his position to receive plenty of action.

“The offense really depends on the running back room a lot, because our group is so experienced,” Williams said. “Whenever he calls our name, we have to step up to the plate and make plays. Coach Long is relying on us to do that. Running the ball is the difference from last year's offense.”

If that indeed proves to be the case, it will certainly appeal to a vocal faction of the Notre Dame fan base. Spend much time on message boards or social media and you’ll find them. They believe a dominant rushing attack should be the foundation of an Irish offense.

It can often be expressed in terse terms: run the damn ball. An acronym or hashtag can even suffice: #RTDB.

Those demanding an increased presence in the running game have data to back up the plea. Notre Dame’s two best seasons under head coach Brian Kelly included the two best seasons running the ball.

In 2012’s 12-1 season, the Irish rushed 506 times for 2,462 yards for an average of 189.4 yards per game. In 2015’s 10-3 season, Notre Dame rushed 479 times for 2,699 yards and 207.7 yards per game. No other seasons have produced more rushing yards during Kelly’s tenure in South Bend.

Both seasons sit on the statistical fringe. The Irish have tallied more than 440 rushes in a season only one other time (2014). And the rushing yards per game number hasn’t topped 165 in any of the other five seasons.

So regardless of how Williams describes the changes in Notre Dame’s offense under Long, a wait-and-see approach seems fitting. Yet the roster should support a run-heavy attack for the Irish. Four starting offensive linemen and the leading rusher (Josh Adams) from last season are back to prove they are better than last season’s 4.5 yards per rush and 163.3 yards per game.

Insert heavier doses of Williams and sophomore Tony Jones Jr. into the running back rotation, and the Irish could have a prolific and versatile rushing attack. The faster tempo demanded by Long could wear down defenses, but it will also require fresh legs.

“It's very big to have multiple running backs because of the fact that we run the ball so much and our tempo is very fast,” Williams said. “You need backs to rotate in and out. With our rotation, if you remove the numbers from our jerseys, we all look the same.”

Well, maybe not that similar. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Williams likes to consider himself the fastest, most explosive option in the backfield.

“It's just exciting to watch,” Williams said of himself.

Williams showed the excitement in flashes last season. He scored touchdowns in three games, but none more electric then his 59-yard scamper against Syracuse that started as a potential loss of yards before Williams reversed field to outrun the entire defense and score untouched.

Yet Williams finished fourth on the team in rushes (39) and rushing yards (200) with Adams, quarterback DeShone Kizer and running back Tarean Folston ahead of him. Carries will once again be hard to come by with three running backs in the mix.

“It just ups the competition in the room,” Williams said. “If Josh breaks a long run — say he breaks a 60-yard run — the goal for me and Tony is, I would break an 80-yard run. I would break a 90-yard run.”

And what’s the best way for the offense to maximize Williams’ talent?

“Me just being on the field whenever I can. Give me the ball,” Williams said. “When you put the ball in my hands, great things will happen."

The confidence is apparent. The personnel suggests Williams and his fellow running backs could be very busy on Saturdays. But they’ll need to convince Long that they deserve the football.

"We always talk about it in the running back room,” Williams said. “(Running backs) coach (Autry) Denson stays on us about it. Every time we get in, if (Long) calls a run play, we have to make sure we get the first down. If it's fourth-and-2, we have to get the two yards because it will show coach Long that he can trust us running the ball."

tjames@ndinsider.com

574-235-6214

Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Dexter Williams runs next to Ashton White during the Notre Dame spring football Blue-Gold game Saturday, April 22, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN