Notre Dame more confident in younger running backs after spring football

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The 6-foot-3, 340-pound Darnell Ewell fought all he could to shed his block and make a play.

Then came Jahmir Smith.

Notre Dame’s sophomore running back — at 5-foot-11, 207 pounds — is dwarfed by the Irish nose guard. Yet Smith's force — with the help of early enrolled freshman center Zeke Correll — brought Ewell to the ground.

Smith lowered his head, churned his feet and barreled his way for a one-yard touchdown run, one of his two scores Saturday in the 90th Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium.

“Jahmir is a truck,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “He would just assume to run over you than miss you, which is fine. We know what his style is. But he will also trip over lines when you swing him out of the backfield, so we’ve got to clean that up.”

With injuries at the position in recent weeks, ND’s younger, inexperienced running backs have seen the field more. Saturday’s spring game allowed Smith — as well as C’Bo Flemister and Kyren Williams — to showcase their abilities even more.

The Irish running backs were rarely tackled in their previous 14 spring practices, by design. That changed Saturday. The Irish embraced contact at every position besides quarterback.

Though he's battling a hamstring injury, Smith took advantage of his expanded role. The sophomore turned eight carries into 56 yards, caught three passes for 37 yards and led the Irish with two rushing touchdowns. His second score came from three yards out.

Smith's 27-yard run on backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec's second drive highlighted his day. He spun out of a jam at the line of scrimmage before bursting to the outside. The move differed from Kelly’s truck comparison. And it caught the eye of presumed starter Jafar Armstrong.

“I think Jahmir’s cuts are underrated, too,” said Armstrong, who ran for a game-high 85 yards and a touchdown on nine carries and hauled in four passes for 71 yards. “He had that spin move today that went for (27 yards). I think he’s a really good back.

“He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s quick. He does really good things out of the backfield. I’m excited for him this year. He’s definitely going to make some noise for sure.”

Senior running back Tony Jones Jr. remained sidelined after missing Tuesday’s practice. Jones figures to be an important part of the running back rotation, headed by Armstrong. Jones' absence opened the door for Smith, Williams and Flemister. Armstrong also saw limited action in the second half, a contributing factor in the trio’s combined 28 touches on the day.

Williams, the lone running back signed in ND’s 2019 class, came to campus in January. He capped Jurkovec’s second drive with a one-yard touchdown run. A 10-yard run and an eight-yard catch by Williams moved the chains before his score.

“He’s quick. He’s really shifty,” Armstrong said. “He had that really nice spin move, too. He broke a tackle and then broke another one. He’s really shifty. He’s pretty physical, too. He really impressed me coming in.

"He should still be in high school, but he’s scoring touchdowns in the spring game. He’s just out there having a good time, and he’s going to make some noise too this year.”

The early enrolled freshman made little noise in the first couple weeks of spring football. The absence of Williams' fellow backfield mates allowed him to jump out in recent practices. Flemister, Smith and Jones missed time intermittently throughout this spring.

The 5-9, 209-pounder recorded 22 yards and a touchdown on six carries and grabbed two passes for 10 yards.

“Kyren is a physical back for his size,” Kelly said. “He’s a powerful kid. He’s over 200 pounds, runs low to the ground and catches the football well. He’s a pretty talented back in and of itself.”

Flemister had the least production among ND’s running backs. The sophomore’s eight rushes went for 13 yards. He also caught a pass for minus-two yards.

He didn't showcase it much on Saturday, but Flemister can flash elusiveness. In a March 30 practice, the 5-11, 195-pounder shook off tackle attempts from rover Paul Moala and safety Patrick Pellini, put his hand on the ground to maintain balance and darted to the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown.

“C’Bo is slippery,” Kelly said. “He’s low to the ground and has great balance. He’s got pretty good vision and hits the hole well. You look up and you think he hasn’t done anything, and he’s got five yards. Good, natural instincts at that position.”

Spring games often do not tell the full story. Saturday’s scrimmage was no different. For one, an eccentric scoring system resulted in the Gold squad’s 58-45 triumph. The game's stipulations of zero kickoffs, no hitting the quarterback and vanilla play-calling compare with ND’s previous media-observed spring practices.

Much could change in the 142 days before ND’s next real opponent, Louisville, on Sept. 2. At this point last year, the Irish knew little about Jones and less about Armstrong. Even 2018 starter Dexter Williams — who entered last season with 99 career carries — wasn't an absolute known commodity.

Fast forward to now, and the Irish seem confident in Armstrong. They also appear comfortable about the running back position, in general, after learning more about his reserves. 

“I think all three (Flemister, Williams and Smith) afforded themselves well today,” Kelly said. “They give us confidence that if we get into a pinch, we’ve got those guys to count on as well.”

Notre Dame’s Jahmir Smith (34) runs with the ball during the first half of Saturday's Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame.