Noie: Dexter Williams brings the juice to Notre Dame run game in win over Stanford

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Black and white photographs of Notre Dame players who enjoyed big nights, and there were a lot of them in Saturday’s 38-17 smackdown of No. 7 Stanford, rolled across the video board in the stadium’s post-game interview room.

One of the stills featured Irish senior running back Dexter Williams, the football firmly in his left hand, his right preparing to reach up in celebration as he headed to the end zone after returning from a personal Twilight Zone.

The guy teammates call “Juice” packed quite a punch.

Nobody would have believed the script that Williams wrote Saturday in his first game back after sitting out the season’s first four games, most likely because of a university-imposed suspension. Having missed the first month, and having received some encouraging words from his mother before the game, Williams was poised to do what he does best — run the rock

He then enjoyed his biggest and best night in an Irish uniform.

With the running back spot decimated by injury before and during the game, Williams rushed for a career-high 161 yards on a career-best 21 carries. His three prior years, his most carries for a season was 39. Think about that. Williams fell 18 carries shy of equaling in one game what he’s twice done in a season.

The first time he touched the ball — the first time he touched it in a meaningful game since New Year’s Day back in his hometown of Orlando, Fla., — the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Williams sliced through what was supposed to be a stingy Stanford defense and didn’t stop until he was in the end zone. One carry, 45 yards, one score.

Welcome back.

“It was a big hole, so I hit it,” Williams said. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m gone.’ It was a great feeling. It was making up for lost time. A lot of lost time.”

Time that many figured Williams wouldn’t talk about. Certainly not Saturday. Or next week. Or next month. Afterward, Williams was a surprise inclusion of five players, which also featured defensive lineman Jerry Tillery carrying the game ball in his meaty right hand after four sacks, to meet the media. That was unexpected.

Rewind to last season and the last Irish player who sat out four games for reasons never disclosed. That would be wide receiver Kevin Stepherson. Make that former wide receiver Kevin Stepherson. Not once after Stepherson saw the field did he meet with reporters to discuss his game, his career, his time away, his future. Not a word. That was by design. Then, like that, he was gone.

First time after a career night, there was Williams front and center. — OK off to one side — in the post-game interview room answering questions about his past, his present and his future, one that again looks bright after Saturday.

“It was just a blessing to be back out there with my brothers,” a smiling Williams said as midnight fast approached. “It’s been a long time waiting, being patient, still being a leader, trying to do everything the correct way and just be that dude that my teammates can count on.”

Being better

That Williams wasn’t going to be part of the game plan the first month was the offseason’s worst-kept secret. Everyone knew it, but nobody said it. Under privacy laws, they couldn’t. Not Williams (he was never available). Not head coach Brian Kelly (he danced around it). Not position coach Autry Denson. Not any of Williams’ teammates.

It was just assumed that Williams would’t be there for Michigan or for Ball State or for Vanderbilt. Or for the season’s first road trip to Wake Forest. Only when the perennial West Coast power came calling on a cool autumn night could Williams finally pull on his No. 2 blue jersey and do what he likes to do. Run the ball. Run it well. Run it hard. Run it, as he likes to say, with juice.

It showed.

Just as the entire offense looks like it has another gear with Ian Book at quarterback, so does the run game with Williams. He’s got big-play ability every time he touches the ball, and even when he doesn’t. Heck, he even picked up a blitz (OK, he attempted to pick up the blitz) when Book found tight end Nic Weishar with a six-yard touchdown late in the first quarter. That’s the new and improved Dex.

#FreeDex no more. He’s free. He’s flowing. All energy. Positive energy.

“His nickname is ‘Juice’ for a reason,” said wide receiver Miles Boykin. “He just lets that energy go. It's contagious. Having Dex back is huge for us just for team morale.

“Obviously he can go out there and ball, but the stuff that he brings: intangibles, energy."

Still, Williams didn’t have Sept. 29 at 7:30 p.m. — 7:43 to be exact — written anywhere in stone. Not in his phone or in his mind or on a piece of paper in his locker. Saturday was a big night for him, but to him, it was just another night where he could be a cog to the cause. Just one of the guys who could help No. 8 Notre Dame make a little national noise on the way to 5-0.

“It was a really long process and I just had to trust it,” Williams said. “I love the game of football and just having that taken away from me, it was a feeling I never felt before.”

Why was it taken away from Williams? He declined to offer specifics.

“I’m really not worried about that; I’m not focused on what happened in the past,” he said. “I’m really just trying to move forward.”

Even with Williams’ work on the field, Kelly talked afterward more about Williams off the field. More about the person than the player. His carries and cuts and yards and touchdown were nice, but Kelly sees a bigger picture coming into focus for Williams. One that doesn’t include all the periphery stuff as much as the personal stuff.

“I’m really proud of his growth and his maturity,” Kelly said. “Those come first. When he got his chance, he made the best of it.

“We needed him.”

How much Williams would be needed in the week leading into Saturday’s game was up to debate. Yeah, he was a talent, perhaps the most talented Irish tailback, but Jafar Armstrong was getting better with each practice rep. Tony Jones, Jr. was coming. Avery Davis remained in the mix. Brandon Wimbush could always be counted on to get some yards at the starting quarterback spot.

Now? Whoa, is Williams needed beginning next week against Virginia Tech in a prime-time, nationally-televised game in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Armstrong’s out for the next couple of weeks with a left knee infection, which required surgery to clean out late last week. Williams told Armstrong over the weekend not to feel like he has to rush back. Williams will play for him. His teammate. His brother.

Jones then suffered a sprained ankle in Saturday’s second half. He might best be classified as week to week. Wimbush? For the second straight game after Kelly insisted he would play, he logged a DNP — did not play. Suddenly, Williams’ talents become critical for next week, and maybe the next few. Maybe the rest of the way.

Williams can’t wait to handle that responsibility. He’s now mature enough and wise enough and understanding enough of what it takes to be at Notre Dame. It’s a privilege. Not a right. That’s something Williams may have taken for granted in the past. Not the present. Or future.

Back in the game Saturday, he looks like he’s ready to start making all the right moves. At just the right time. For the Irish. For himself.

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2) gets past Stanford’s Joey Alfieri (32) during the Notre Dame-Stanford NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.
Running back Dexter Williams returned from suspension in week five against Stanford and takes his first carry of the season 45 yards for a touchdown.
Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams, holding ball, celebrates a touchdown with teammates during the Notre Dame-Stanford game in 2018.