Notebook: Where does a healthy Dexter Williams fit in Notre Dame's mad rush?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Dexter Williams finally was reintroduced to the nation’s No. 6 rushing attack Saturday, modestly, unceremoniously … and hashtag-free?

Actually, Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday, that the #33Trucking Campaign attached to junior running back Josh Adams’ congealing Heisman Trophy push is about team and not an individual.

“It really is about offense, defense, special teams,” said Kelly, his AP fifth-ranked Irish (7-1) looking to push Wake Forest (5-3) to 1-59 all-time against Top 10 teams, when the two clash Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

“It's all working together to provide the opportunity for a guy like No. 33 (Adams) to be where he is. He doesn't get to where he is without all 33 coming together as one.

“Somebody has got to be the lead singer. It's a great band, but that's really kind of the collectively all these guys working together. But there's only going to be one guy out in front, and that's Josh Adams.”

Yet Adams’ 146.1 yards-per-game average — sixth-best individually in the FBS and on a pace to make him ND’s all-time — single-season rushing champ by more than 400 yards, is accounting for less than half of ND’s 317.9 yards on the ground per game.

Before Adams ran for 202 yards on 27 carries last Saturday in a 35-14 dismissal of N.C. State and its top 10 rush defense, he had never carried the ball more than 20 times in a game in his career.

So what’s the best blend of Adams and his backups — Williams. Tony Jones Jr., Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes — moving forward?

There’s not a lot of past performances to truly gauge it. Rarely this season have Adams, Williams and Jones all been healthy at the same time.

And one of the few times they were — the 20-19 loss to Georgia on Sept. 9 — Adams got 19 of the 20 running back carries in that game, a lopsided distribution Kelly later said he regretted.

Jones (139 yards, 27 carries, 2 TDs) has the skill set for the Irish to run some two-back sets, something Kelly had planned to use last Saturday. But the sophomore suffered a hip pointer early in the N.C. State game and did not register a single carry.

Jones is progressing well in his treatment, Kelly said Tuesday, and the coach is optimistic he’ll be available for Wake Forest.

Williams (247 yards on 28 carries with 4 TDs) hadn’t played since ND’s 38-18 win at Michigan State on Sept. 23 because of an ankle injury. He contributed 33 yards in eight carries Saturday against the Wolfpack.

He is the closest among the running backs to Adams’ 8.9 yards per carry (at 8.8). Both of them are on pace to knock George Gipp from the top spot in single-season yards per carry, a school record he has held for 97 years.

“Continue to expand his role as we progress,” Kelly said of his plans for Williams. “Obviously, we know he was not 100 percent.

“We weren't going to put him into a situation — look, his skill set and his strength is that burst, and when he doesn't have it, he's just not as effective of a player for us. We think that that's back. As long as he's able and he has that burst, he's part of what we're doing.”

One thing all five Irish running backs have in common is they’ve been holding onto the football. None of them has fumbled this season — lost or otherwise.

And in terms of lost fumbles, since Boston College's Matt Milano jarred one loose from Adams in the second quarter of a 19-16 Irish victory at Fenway Park on Nov. 21, 2015, Irish running backs have gone 590 consecutive carries without losing one.

Personnel matters

The gameday status for Notre Dame’s second-leading receiver, tight end Alizé Mack, remains undefined, though Kelly said the junior is progressing through the concussion-protocol steps.

Mack (17 receptions for 154 yards) suffered the injury in last Saturday’s 35-14 victory over North Carolina State.

“Each guy is different, and you really don't know until they go through the cardio piece,” Kelly said of the concussion-protocol process. “They've got to get through the cardio piece. He'll get activated (Tuesday for) the cardio (step).

If Mack is not able to go Saturday against Wake Forest, there would be elevated roles for freshman Cole Kmet and senior Nic Weishar, per Kelly, to pair with co-starter and grad senior Durham Smythe.

Even in a year in which the passing game numbers have been suppressed by ND’s dominant running game, the tight end position group has managed 30 catches. That’s just two fewer than the tight ends amassed in the 2015 and ’16 season combined.

• Defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and quarterback Brandon Wimbush, both of whom sustained minor ankle sprains last Saturday, have been fully cleared for practice this week.

“Brandon did not seek treatment, so we feel pretty good there,” Kelly said.

• The injuries continue to pile up for Wake Forest. Two days after announcing leading receiver Greg Dortch was out for the season with an abdominal injury, Deacons coach Dave Clawson said leading tackler Jessie Bates III and starting running back Cade Carney will miss the ND game with injuries.

“Hopefully, we’ll have them back in a couple of weeks,” Clawson said.

Bates is a 6-foot-2, 195-pound sophomore safety from Fort Wayne, Ind. He has 64 tackles, with 5.5 for loss and an interception and a forced fumble in 2017 and was a consensus freshman All-American last season.

Carney, a 5-11, 215-pound sophomore, has 317 yards on 56 carries and one TD.

Poll dancing

One consolation Kelly can hold onto when the Amway coaches poll puts out baffling results on a fairly regular basis is that he’s no longer a contributor to it.

Kelly gave up his ballot prior to the season.

“It was too difficult,” he said of the small window Saturday night/Sunday morning he had to research and vote. “Once they started to go to the committee, the committee to me made my vote obsolete in the sense that they could do such a better job of evaluating truly the top teams in the country.

“You know, I could get a cursory view of it and a look at it, but I couldn't do the kind of job that the committee can do from 1 to 25. And that was my personal reason why I decided to step (out).”

Mirror, mirror?

When Mike Elko left Wake Forest for Notre Dame this offseason, Clawson hired Minnesota’s Jay Sawvel as his new defensive coordinator in large part, because he wanted to continue to run Elko’s old scheme.

And Sawvel is philosophically very similar, right down to employing a rover in a 4-2-5 configuration.

As for Elko having inside intel on Wake’s personnel?

“It's an advantage,” Kelly said. “Bill Rees is a bigger advantage.”

Rees, the father of ND quarterback coach Tommy Rees, is in his first season as Notre Dame’s director of scouting after holding a similar position at Wake Forest and a longtime career in the NFL as a scout and player personnel director.

“There was definitely a little bit more emotion in Mike Elko's (assessment) compared to the straight, standard, plus/minus evaluation of Bill Rees,” Kelly said. “So having both of them, we've got a pretty good understanding of the personnel. But just maybe a little bit of a different flavor.

“Really at the end of the day, this is about execution. This will be about the tenets that we have within our offense, defense and special teams.”

No bitter aftertaste

It’s been almost 11 months since an alumni group took out ads in the Notre Dame student newspaper, The Observer, and the South Bend Tribune calling for Kelly’s ouster.

“I really don't give it much thought,” Kelly said when asked about it Tuesday. “And I didn't give it much thought during the time that it occurred, because it comes with the expectations of Notre Dame. And if you don't live up to those expectations, you should expect those things to occur.

“You can argue about the circumstances and such, but the best way for me to go about and work during those times is to find solutions and change the story line, and that's what I went about to work at it. To go home and get mad and be inactive about changing the story line is poor leadership. So lead, during those times, is what you should do.”

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Notre Dame junior Dexter Williams (2) is back in the Irish running back rotation after a four-week absence. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)