Notebook: Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams' inspiration returns

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The Notre Dame running game got a potential boost this week.

The inspiration behind Dexter Williams’ transcendent season flew into town on Wednesday, the senior running back revealed after practice.

That would be Cheryl Williams’ — Dexter’s 60-year-old mother — whose initial intent was to move in with him and spend the first five weeks of the season with the youngest of her five children while he was serving a four-game university-imposed suspension and then watch in person his re-launch Sept. 29 against Stanford.

The AP No. 3/CFP No. 4 Irish (8-0) visit Northwestern (5-3) on Saturday night. Kickoff is 7:15 EDT, and ESPN has the telecast.

During the suspension Dexter could practice with the team but couldn’t play in games. But he did get to see what real courage looked like.

The twist in all this is that Cheryl is battling two terminal conditions — pulmonary arterial hypertension, diagnosed this past spring, and myasthenia gravis for the past 12 years. She put her regular medical treatments on hold to make the sacrifice to be with Dexter.

Myasthenia gravis is defined by its disconnecting of 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.

The pulmonary arterial hypertension is defined as high pressure in the lungs.

“It puts a lot of stress on the heart,” Cheryl told the Tribune in late September. “For Dexter, when they put a number on it (life expectancy), it disturbed him more than anything.

“But I don’t let my illness define me. I don’t let the way I feel from day to day define how I’m going to be with anybody. You will always see me with a smile on my face and never know if I’m sick or well.”

Between struggling to find affordable flights after the Stanford game and succumbing to Dexter’s pleas to stay, Cheryl didn’t go home to Orlando until after the Pitt game, on Oct. 13. Now a little over two weeks later she is back.

“She got a couple of treatments at home and she’s doing great,” Dexter said.

So is Dexter himself. He’s Notre Dame’s leading rusher — 512 yards on 71 carries with seven TDs — by almost 200 yards. The first time he touched the ball after the suspension, Dexter bolted 45 yards for a touchdown.

And despite missing four games, he is on pace to finish with 1,152 rushing yards. That would put him 27 yards short of 10th place on the Irish single-season rushing list, currently held down by Williams’ running back coach, Autry Denson (1996).

Deep dive into Book

Notre Dame junior Ian Book is almost in a dead heat with history.

His nation’s-best .765 pass-completion rate this season is just shy of the NCAA record of .767 set by Texas quarterback Colt McCoy in 2008.

“His ability to understand the nuances of the offense — you then gain an advantage tactically — allows for a high completion percentage,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said when asked what was behind the numbers.

“He knows where the leverage points are within the offense that gives you an advantage against the defense. … It’s not like, ‘I’m going to Miles (Boykin). I’m going to (Chris) Finke.’ He goes to the receiver that has a leverage position against the defense in the structure.

“Because he’s accurate as a thrower, he then gives it to the receiver that has the best chance of being successful. That’s why it goes to nine different guys. So you add accuracy of throwing, an understanding of the offense, and that’s why you have the high percentage.”

The sort of good news is that the four teams Book faces over the balance of the regular season have pass-efficiency defenses ranked 46th through 61st (out of 129), with Saturday’s opponent — Northwestern — as the high end of that group.

The twist is all four are ranked higher in that statistical category than any of the six teams he’s faced as a starter — North Carolina last year and five opponents this year. The best of that group in this week’s statistical snapshot is Stanford, at No. 72.

Conversely, in demoted starter Brandon Wimbush’s 15 career starts, nine have come against pass-efficiency defenses ranked 45th or better, in other words all nine higher than any Book will have started against this regular season or last season (against North Carolina).

Six of the 15 Wimbush starts have come against top 25 pass-efficiency defenses, including Michigan in this year’s season opener, which ranks No. 1 currently in that category.

It should be noted, though, Book completed 73.7 percent of his passes in an extended relief appearance against LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1. Book’s bottom line of 14-of-19 for 164 yards and two TDs with one pick is good for a 170.4 pass-efficiency rating, and came against the nation’s No. 9 pass-efficiency defense of 2017.

His LSU efficiency rating is right about what his 2018 season rating is — 170.2, good for seventh-best nationally.

But Book is a decidedly better quarterback in Kelly’s eyes than he was at any time last season — or this past spring, for that matter.

“He made some mistakes like every quarterback does,” Kelly said, “and he stopped making them.

“I’ll give you an example. We read the backside safety against our defense. When he drops down, we throw a backside slant. He kept handing the ball off in spring ball. That safety kept making the play.

“It was, like, ‘Can’t you see him? We need to throw that slant.’ In the spring game, he threw it three times.

“It’s just that process, that repetitive process of sticking with it. He just made that mistake three, four, five, six times. You keep scratching your head, ‘Is he going to get it?’

“He sees it clearly, understands it, clicks. I think it’s just the repetitiveness of the teaching and going through it. He saw it, understands it now, and it’s allowed him to run the offense effectively.”

No tricks, only treats

As it turns out the hulking figure hanging outside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex Wednesday evening wasn’t a splendidly outfitted trick-or-treater, but Quenton Nelson himself.

The Indianapolis Colts rookie and 2017 unanimous All-America offensive guard took in ND’s practice and likely did a little coaching himself on Wednesday. The Colts (3-5) have a bye week before returning to action Nov. 11 at home against Jacksonville (3-5).

History lesson

If the Irish prevail Saturday night at Northwestern, they’ll become the 17th Notre Dame football team in history to fashion a 9-0 record.

Eleven of the previous 16 came during the Associated Press poll era, and the lowest end-of-the-season ranking of any of those teams was No. 4 by the 2012 Irish (12-1). Five of those 11 were crowned national champions (1943, 1947, 1949, 1973 and 1988).

Of the five that predated the inception of the AP poll, three are recognized as national champions (1924, 1929 and 1930).

Tranquill honored

Notre Dame grad senior linebacker Drue Tranquill made the cut from 179 semifinalists to 13 finalists for the 2018 William V. Campbell Trophy, essentially the “Academic Heisman.”

The National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame made the announcement Wednesday.

Each of the 13 finalists will each receive an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship. The winner will be named at the NFF annual awards dinner, Dec. 4 in New York. The winner will have his postgraduate scholarship increased to $25,000.

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2), here leaping into the end zone against Navy on Saturday night, has been reunited this week with his mother, Cheryl.
Notre Dame’s Ian Book (12) looks to pass during ND’s 44-22 win over Navy, Saturday in San Diego.

Who: No. 3 Notre Dame (8-0) vs. Northwestern (5-3)

When: Saturday at 7:15 p.m. (EDT)

Where: Ryan Field; Evanston, Ill.

TV: ESPN

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

Line: Notre Dame by 9 1/2