Notebook: What is Notre Dame getting in repatriated running back Dexter Williams?

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Bob Head never brought up the suspension that nobody at Notre Dame seems willing/able to talk about head-on the last time the West Orange (Fla.) High School football coach had a chance to chat with his former prized pupil, Dexter Williams.

“I already knew I wasn’t happy about it and he wasn’t happy about it, so it didn’t seem like a good time to bring it up,” Head said Tuesday of Notre Dame’s senior running back, repatriated this week after four weeks of university-imposed exile.

“But I know this. He’s highly motivated to get in there and play. He loves his team. He’s a great teammate. He’s a hard-working kid who’s overcome a lot. I don’t see any reason why he won’t jump right in there head first.”

The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Orlando, Fla., product reintegrates into the nation’s 60th-ranked-and-rising rushing attack Saturday night on a grand stage as No. 8 Notre Dame (4-0) and seventh-ranked Stanford (4-0) meet as unbeatens for the first time since coaching titans Knute Rockne and Pop Warner dueled in the Rose Bowl at the end of the 1924 season.

It’s also the first matchup of top 10 teams at Notre Dame Stadium since the Bush Push Game, No. 1 USC vs. No. 9 ND, in 2005.

How much rust Williams has to shed, how his role will play out, who he can become in his final college season may not be immediately answered Saturday night, but Irish head coach Brian Kelly smiled when asked about the version of Williams he’s seeing in practice lately.

“He’s better in all facets than the Dexter Williams version that we had in the spring,” Kelly said during his weekly Tuesday press conference.

“Where do I think he fits in? I think he’s explosive. I think he gets into the second level. Does he have 20 carries in him this week? Probably not, but I think he can be integrated within a backfield that is emerging and getting better each and every week.”

Still, there is a lot to prove for Williams, the only one of the six running backs on the Irish roster with a recruiting pedigree higher than a three-star.

In each of his first three games as a running back — ever — sophomore converted wide receiver Jafar Armstrong accumulated more carries (15 vs. Michigan, 13 vs. Ball State and 11 vs. Vanderbilt) than Williams has ever logged in a game during his first three seasons at ND.

Armstrong is coming off a career-high 98-yard, two-TD performance against Wake Forest last Saturday in which he carried eight times, matching Williams’ career high for carries in a game.

And Armstrong’s 47 total carries through just four games (and Tony Jones’ Jr.’s 43) are more than the 39 Williams has amassed in his sophomore or junior seasons or the 21 his freshman year.

What’s more, Armstrong’s seven receptions and 87 receiving yards in four games are already more on both counts than Williams has collected in his Irish career (6 for 29 yards).

Jones, a junior, is ND’s leading rusher with 263 yards, three TDs and a 5.7 per-carry average. Armstrong has 245 yards, five touchdowns and a 5.2 average.

Talent is not the reason for the modest numbers opportunities for Williams. Health and a sometimes incomplete skill set, particularly when it comes to blocking and blitz pickup, have been contributing factors.

“We’ve worked him through our team periods over the last few weeks,” Kelly said, “whether it be our blitz-pickup period or our skelly (skeleton) period. He’s ready to play for us this week if he continues to do what we expect him to do.”

Personnel matters

A Sunday MRI revealed a quad tendon in freshman defensive lineman Jamion Franklin’s leg had detached from the bone, thus ending his season.

“He’s going to need surgery,” Kelly said. “So we’ll have to reattach the quad tendon, which probably (takes) three months for that to reattach. and then you’re talking six months for that to get back, because there’s a lot of atrophy there with the quad. But he’ll be back for spring and ready to go.”

The 6-foot-1, 306-pound reserve suffered the injury Saturday during his college debut, a 56-27 Irish rout at Wake Forest.

“I am not defeated ... for I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,” Franklin posted on his Twitter account Tuesday afternoon.

• The starting quarterback intrigue has moved on to starting right guard intrigue. Sort of.

Senior Trevor Ruhland made his first collegiate start Saturday at Wake Forest and played well. Junior Tommy Kraemer, the starter in ND’s first three games, sat out the Wake game while nursing an ankle injury but is back to full strength now.

“I think we’re going to let them both continue to compete,” Kelly said when pressed for a No. 1 for the Stanford game.

As far as the quarterbacks themselves? Notre Dame’s official depth chart lists the starter as “Brandon Wimbush or Ian Book” — although every expectation is that Book will make start No. 2 of the season and third of his career on Saturday night.

“We don’t want to look back,” Kelly said. “We don’t want to look forward. It’s in the moment. and so whatever is going to get us a win against Stanford this week, if we feel like playing both of them every other series is the best thing to win, we’ll do it.

“We’re not here to please any one group. We’re just trying to win games.”

By the numbers

In last year’s 38-20 ND loss at Stanford — a game the Irish led going into the fourth quarter — the Cardinal defense amassed six sacks and 10 tackles for loss.

To put that in perspective, in current Irish quarterback Tommy Rees’ senior season (2013), the Irish yielded eight sacks the entire season. It’s also one short of the Kelly Era high in a game (in a 55-31 loss at Arizona State in 2014).

And the 10 tackles for loss is tied for the second-most allowed in the Kelly Era, behind only the 12 Miami (Fla.) collected in its 33-17 Sun Bowl loss to the Irish in 2010.

• One-time Irish verbal commitment Paulson Adebo, a sophomore cornerback for Stanford, last weekend leapfrogged Irish junior cornerback Julian Love for the national lead in pass breakups. Paulson comes to Notre Dame Stadium with 11, while Love is second with nine.

Love is tied for third nationally in recovered fumbles, with two.

• Remember the elite recruit Notre Dame sent its equipment truck 920 miles in January of 2016 to park outside his house in Savannah, Ga., in an effort to impress him?

Well wide receiver Demetris Robertson ended up at Cal, then transferred to Georgia this summer and was granted a waiver for immediate eligibility by the NCAA later in the summer.

The junior is still looking for his first reception with the Bulldogs, though he does have two rushes for 95 yards and a TD.

• It looks like a misprint but Stanford — even with 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up Bruce Love still on the roster — comes to Notre Dame Stadium as the No. 119 team nationally in rushing yards per game (104.3).

Three other future Irish opponents are also struggling in that area — with Northwestern 113th, USC 116th and Florida State 120th among the 129 FBS teams.

Stanford is 100th in total offense and is the first of four straight Irish opponents struggling to cover kickoffs (118th in kick coverage). Virginia Tech is 111th, Pitt 102nd and Navy 112th.

• The schedule hasn’t been kind to former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko, now at Texas A&M (2-2). Mixed in with early-season matchups with Northwestern State and Louisiana-Monroe, Elko has had to game plan for Clemson and Alabama.

The Aggies stand 77th nationally in total defense, four spots ahead of Elko’s predecessor Brian VanGorder, who’s now at Louisville.

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2) dives for the end zone during the victory over Nevada in 2016.
Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2) high-fives fans as he exits the field following the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring football game April 21, 2018, inside Notre Dame Stadium.

Who: No. 8 Notre Dame (4-0) vs. No. 7 Stanford (4-0)

When: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (EDT)

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

Radio: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 5