More than Georgia on Notre Dame RB Dexter Williams' mind

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — With one eye on The Weather Channel and another on the texts constructed to conceal a surprise visit, Dexter Williams really never had a chance to get caught up in the numbers game.

Or see how stunningly they actually tilt to the favor of the junior from Orlando and the Notre Dame running game heading into Saturday night’s clash between the 24th-ranked Irish (1-0) and betting underdog and No. 15 Georgia at Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 p.m.: NBC).

The biggest, best, most powerful inspiration to boost his own statistical résumé arrived secretly Friday afternoon. Cheryl Williams, who continues to battle and triumph over a rare autoimmune neuromuscular disorder called myasthenia gravis that has no known cure, purposely filibustered all week about the possibility of coming to see her son in person.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma was still projected to bend north from its path of destruction in the Caribbean and then crawl up the Florida peninsula, with even inland cities like Orlando expected to feel Tropical Storm force.

“I’m hoping she can get out as fast as possible and be able to be here with me,” said Williams midweek. “Oh, if she’s here, I’d definitely have to put on a show.”

Georgia’s defense — 16th in total defense nationally last season and with 10 starters back — provides perhaps the stiffest challenge to that notion that the Irish will see all season. Then again, Dexter has seen his mom, again and again, transcend more improbable circumstances.

Cheryl Williams was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis in 2006, following a series of small strokes. The disease itself disconnects the nerves and voluntary muscles, which results in symptoms such as weakness of the arms and legs, double vision, drooping eyelids and difficulty speaking, chewing, swallowing and breathing.

She has undergone regular chemotherapy and plasmapheresis treatments in three- to fourth-month intervals, which means regular visits to the hospital. In 2010, she spent three months in the hospital on life support, waking up less than 24 hours before she was to be disconnected from the equipment keeping her alive.

“She’s actually getting stronger,” Dexter said this week. “She’s been doing some stuff on her own, so her health is definitely getting better.”

And her son continues to evolve in Notre Dame’s three-man, running back tag team along with fellow junior and headliner Josh Adams and sophomore Tony Jones Jr., another Floridian, from St. Petersburg.

Adams, Williams and quarterback Brandon Wimbush all broke the 100-yard mark individually last week in a 49-16 runfest over Temple. The Irish amassed 422 yards on the ground in their total of 606. Williams, Wimbush and Jones each had a rushing touchdown, while Adams scored two.

“Just getting better at blocking and being able to read defenses,” Williams said of the difference between the 2016 version of himself and this year’s iteration. “Picking up blitzes as well. And running the ball a lot harder and just being a better teammate.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly smiles when the better teammate discussion crops up.

“I think what Dexter is referring to is he got (six) carries, and his first (three) carries were in the third quarter,” Kelly said. “And if you remember the carries got us inside the (10)-yard line, and I took him out. And somebody else (Jones) scored.

“That could have been the last time he had a chance to touch the ball, may not have had a chance to score again. So leading up to that time, he was alert, locked in, ready to play and provided our football team with a huge play in getting us down into the scoring area.

“When I took him out, there was no, ‘What about me? This is my chance.’ It was all about the team. And then subsequently, (he) gets a big run and then gets two more chance to score a touchdown. (He’s) Much more about, ‘What I can do for the team?’ ”

He backs the talk with actions. Williams is on both coverage units and both return units on special teams.

“Coach (Autry) Denson always told me you’re not only just a running back, you have to be versatile,” Williams said of ND’s all-time leading rusher and currently its running backs coach.

“When coach Denson left here, he was actually on special teams on many different NFL teams. At first, I didn’t really buy into it, but then I saw how much special teams has an impact.

“And also it has an impact on my game. If I can go down and make a play and get a team inside the 20, that’s great for my team. So whatever I can do to help my team, I’m willing to do that.”

He’s certainly adding to an Irish running game that looks to come of age against Georgia, at least perceptually. In reality, there have already been flashes.

Georgia senior Nick Chubb (5-10, 228) and Sony Michel (5-11, 222) are certainly the more established and prolific running backs in the matchup.

But individually and collectively, with an admittedly much smaller sample size (360 career carries for the ND backs to 1,001 for Georgia’s), Adams and Williams edge Chubb and Michel in yards per carry — 6.48 to 6.01 together; individually 6.6 to 6.4 Adams to Chubb, 6.1 to 5.5 Williams to Michel.

And Adams, in 2015 and 2016, faced as many top 40 run defenses (13) as Georgia had to deal with in the first three seasons Chubb and Michel have been on the Georgia campus (2014-16).

In 2017, the Irish play nine teams that were ranked in the top 40 in rush defense in 2016, and a nation’s-most 10 that hit the top 40 in total defense.

Georgia will face three in each category, with Notre Dame having the fourth-best total defense rank in 2016 of the teams the Bulldogs match up with in 2017 — and in a year in which the Irish fired their defensive coordinator, former Georgia assistant coach Brian VanGorder.

Yet, two of the ugliest stats from ND’s 4-8 season were its No. 80 ranking in rushing offense and No. 72 standing in rushing defense. Georgia on Saturday night provides an intriguing litmus test on both fronts.

Williams (5-11, 215) arrived the higher-rated recruit than Adams (6-2, 225), after parachuting out of Miami’s 2015 class to sign with the Irish. But he’s been the more intermittent force in the two seasons-plus, with the desire and perhaps opportunity now to expand that role.

“His preparation has been very intentional in everything that he does,” Kelly said. “His attention to detail, his focus, all the traits. He is really locked in.

“If you look at his wristbands, he’s got all of his power statements on his wristbands. And it’s really helped his talent come out in a fashion that it’s going to be fun to watch him play this year.”

And having Cheryl Williams in the stands can only help in that regard.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2) celebrates during the Temple at Notre Dame NCAA football game at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA