Putting Notre Dame RB Dexter Williams' redemptive run in perspective

Eric Hansen I South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND

The swath of green hair on the back of his head that has been a part of Dexter Williams’ reboot and reinvention as a college football player got a temporary makeover for Friday night’s Echoes ’18 awards show.

And a pragmatic one at that.

“I didn’t want to come in with green hair and a red outfit,” the Irish senior running back said rather matter-of-factly after ND’s annual regular-season celebration. “I feel like I’d look like a Christmas tree.”

What Williams looks like — with the temporary red-dye look or the committed green tint that he’ll return to soon — is a running back worthy of All-America consideration. The numbers both bear that out and mute that notion.

Heading into the Dec. 29 College Football Playoff semifinal matchup between No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) and No. 3 Clemson (13-0), Williams’ 117.6 per-game rushing average would rank seventh nationally — if he had played in enough games this season to qualify for the NCAA statistics.

To put that in perspective, 2017 Notre Dame Heisman Trophy candidate Josh Adams finished 19th in rushing last season. The only other coach Brian Kelly Era player to crack the top 40 nationally was C.J. Prosise (40th in 2015).

The last Irish running back to finish in the top 20 prior to Adams was Williams’ position coach, Autry Denson. Notre Dame’s career leader in rushing yardage finished 19th in both 1997 and ’98. Former All-American Reggie Brooks in 1992 is the last Irish player to finish a season in the top 10 for rushing yards per game.

The current ND administrator’s 122.1 per-game average in 1992 placed him seventh.

Would and if are where Williams’ numbers get bogged down. NCAA stat leaders must play in 75 percent of the team’s games to qualify. Quarterback Ian Book’s three cameos in the first three games of ND’s season keep him on the right side of the qualifying line.

Williams’ four-game university imposed suspension to start the season does not and will not. The Irish would have to play 16 games for the 75 percent part to kick in, and they’ll top out at 14 games if they reach the CFP National Championship Game, Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.

Another would/if is Williams’ 6.6 career yards-per-carry that would put him in a seventh-place tie among active players, just behind 2018 national rushing leader Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin and 2017 Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love of Stanford.

But a big part of the hook in Williams’ story is the transformation that incubated just before and during his suspension and that was unveiled for all the world to see on Sept. 29, his grand re-entry against Bryce Love and Stanford.

Williams scored a TD on his first touch of the season — a 45-yard burst in the 38-17 win over the Cardinal, and he finished with 161 yards on 21 carries — both career highs at the time that have since been exceeded (23 carries vs. Pitt, 202 yards vs. Florida State).

“The motivation is I really don’t like to let people down,” Williams said of the turnaround on and off the field. “I don’t like to let people down who look up to me. I don’t like to let my teammates down. I don’t like to let my family down.

“It was just that time I needed to grow up and become a man, so I just dealt with the consequences and kept my head up. I never let my head get down.”

And if he needed a reminder why not to, all he had to do was look across the supper table at the smiling face of his mother, Cheryl Williams.

Cheryl in late August left her husband, Leonard, to mind the home front in Orlando, Fla., in order to move in with Dexter the weekend his suspension kicked in. She remained in South Bend for the suspension’s entirety, with the thought of moving back to Florida after the Stanford game.

Instead she spent most of the season living with her youngest of five children in South Bend, and was present, with Dexter’s father, at the Echoes show.

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.

“She still has her bad days every now and then,” Dexter said, “but she’s going good. Everything is going good. I try to stay on top of her and her medicine, and making sure I’m taking great care of her.”

Dexter took home ND’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year award at the Echoes show, kind of a clunky match for a senior and fairly modest on the prestige scale of the 20 honors handed out Friday night.

For Williams, it might as well have been the Heisman. He was genuinely touched and emotional during the ceremony and after.

“It meant a lot to me winning this award, knowing all the hardships I went through,” he said. “Just having my teammates here and them holding me accountable, them helping me to push through all these obstacles and them just helping me along the way.

“Same things for the coaches, just them believing in me. I just want to come out here and just do what I do best, which is playing football.”

His biggest test comes Dec. 29 against the nation’s No. 3 rush defense, in Clemson. The Tigers didn’t allow a single player to crack the 100-yard mark against them this season. The closest was Wake Forest QB/multi-position player Kendall Hinton, who gained 92 yards on 11 carries in mop-up time of a 63-3 Clemson rout.

Pitt senior Darrin Hall was next, at 90 yards on 14 carries in the ACC Championship Game, a 42-10 Tiger win. No other player cracked 70 yards against the Clemson defense in 2018.

Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams, the nation’s No. 4 rusher was held to 31 yards on 17 carries. Boston College’s A.J. Dillon, No. 12 nationally in rushing, managed 39 yards on 16 carries.

Then again, none of them had Cheryl Williams in their corner. She told the Tribune on Friday night that her plan is to be in Arlington, Texas, for the Cotton Bowl/semifinal at AT&T Stadium.

“I can’t imagine this without her,” Dexter said. “I’m glad just to have her and thankful to have her on this road to success and this journey of winning 12 games. For her to see the success the team and I are having, I’m so blessed.”

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2) high fives fans as he exits the field following the Notre Dame-Florida State NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.
Dexter Williams poses with his parents, Cheryl and Leonard Williams, during the player walk before Notre Dame’s Sept. 29 home game against Stanford at Notre Dame Stadium.