Analysis: An attempt to unravel Notre Dame RB Dexter Williams' disappearing act

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

It’s almost as if Dexter Williams knew what was coming.

Or, what wasn’t.

Last Wednesday — four days after Notre Dame’s junior running back amassed 124 yards and a touchdown on just six carries in a 49-16 victory over Temple — Williams was asked how he responded to a limited workload in 2016.

“I just had to humble myself even more and wait for my opportunity,” Williams said. “That’s why I say, every opportunity I get, I have to take full advantage of it, because I never know when I’m going to be able to touch the ball again.”

Williams is still waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

In Notre Dame’s 20-19 loss to Georgia last weekend, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound junior’s opportunity never came. In fact, his only mark on the stat sheet came via a first quarter tackle on a punt return.

As a team, Notre Dame managed just 55 rushing yards and 1.5 yards per carry. The curtain never rose on Williams’ expected encore. He broke out, then got buried.

Now, to the obvious question: why?

“There's no particular reason other than coach's decision,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game.

No particular reason?

There has to be a reason. Has to. These things don’t just happen.

So, let’s rifle through a list of possible reasons until we find something that sticks.

1. There weren’t enough carries to go around.

On Sunday’s teleconference, when pressed further on Williams’ disappearing act, Kelly said: “He's a fine back, but we really have a high regard for Josh Adams.

“I don't think it's very unusual to go with what you consider your top back. So we'll try to get (Williams) in. They're all really fine backs, but it's hard to get them all in the game.”

Is it, though? On the opposite sideline, six different Georgia Bulldogs received carries — four running backs, a fullback and a wide receiver.

That doesn’t change the fact that head coach Kirby Smart has a high regard for his senior workhorses, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.

Besides, a week earlier, prior to Notre Dame’s victory over Temple, Kelly said that his three top running backs — Adams, sophomore Tony Jones Jr. and Williams — would play on a “rotational basis.”

“It would surprise me if all three of them weren't actively involved in the game,” Kelly said. “As you know, we're going to play more than one back. I mean, they're all going to be actively involved in the game plan.”

Adams certainly was involved against Georgia, and rightly so. The 6-2, 225-pound junior captain — who has rushed for 1,982 yards, 6.3 yards per carry and 13 touchdowns in 27 career games — has earned a starting position, no question.

Last Saturday, Adams carried 19 times for 55 yards and added a career-best six catches for 60 yards. Jones finished with one carry for a one-yard loss and two catches for nine yards. Williams was a silent spectator on offense.

Adams should and did carry the load.

But what happened to the “rotational basis”?

2. Adams and Jones are superior blockers and pass-catchers.

OK, now we might be onto something.

“Josh is a real fine pass blocker,” Kelly said on Sunday, explaining why Adams earned a majority of the playing time against Georgia. “They do a lot of confusing things with blitzes and stunts up front. So Josh is really good at that stuff.”

One can understand why, against a defensive front seven as physical and formidable as Georgia’s, Kelly and Co. would lean on the running backs that have been most competent with pass protection. Adams and Jones fit the bill.

It’s true, Williams is likely the least complete of the three. He doesn’t block and diagnose blitzes as well as Adams, and he doesn’t catch as well as Jones.

But the kid can run. Ask Temple.

"Dexter has got that first step in the hole that none of them have," Kelly said on Aug. 11.

Is Williams such an average blocker — such a significant liability — that he couldn’t be trusted with one carry, one play, one drive? Maybe. But if he is, why should that be the case in his third year in the program?

Kelly said on Aug. 29 that Adams, Jones and Williams each “have futures to play past this level.”

Williams isn’t a finished product, but he’s talented enough to play. His 6.1 career yards per carry are proof of that.

And, sure, maybe he hasn’t earned 19 carries when Notre Dame (1-1) meets Boston College (1-1) on Saturday.

But how about one or two?

3. Williams’ attitude has impeded his production.

This has to be it, right? After all, Kelly has repeatedly praised Williams’ physical traits. But, as he also said throughout fall camp, the program will no longer reward talent over character. The “Traits of Excellence” pave a path to the field.

So maybe Williams is a bad teammate? Maybe his effort is lacking? Maybe something else is simmering unseen below the surface?

Nope.

In his season-opening press conference on July 31, Kelly singled out Williams’ work ethic in summer conditioning. The Orlando, Fla., native has repeatedly been made available for interviews, which reflects not only his talent but also his standing within the program.

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

So, why was he locked out against Georgia?

I’m out of possible reasons. I still don’t get it.

But maybe Kelly is starting to get it.

"He's got to get in the game," Kelly said on Tuesday. "I made it clear to our offensive coaches that he's got to get on the field. We've got to use his talents."

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Want more great Notre Dame coverage? Follow the link to subscribe to ND Insider Premium.

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2) celebrates after a big stop during the Notre Dame-Georgia NCAA college football game Saturday, September 9, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN