New Notre Dame OC Tommy Rees embraces running game, but will it embrace him back?

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

The early rhetoric from newly elevated offensive coordinator Tommy Rees in his first interviews was all about embracing the running game in his play-calling ideology.

But will the running game embrace him back in 2020?

Rees and running backs coach/running game coordinator Lance Taylor have numbers to throw at the question. There are seven scholarships running backs on the roster, and that takes into account a spring move of nomadic Avery Davis to wide receiver.

Two of the seven options stealthily positioned to astound this fall are summer additions Chris Tyree and Trevor Speights.

Neither is expected to elevate to the top of the depth chart by the time the Irish embark on their reshuffled 2020 schedule, or during the season for that matter. But freshman Tyree’s elite speed and Stanford grad transfer Speights’ untapped potential should make them intriguing niche pieces in the running back rotation.

“We’re seeing with Chris Tyree his physical numbers are very pleasing in terms of power and strength,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said recently. “That gives us a good indication that he’s not a guy you have to throw out in the slot and run handoff sweeps.

“He’s a guy who could probably handle some load inside.”

Both must answer durability questions, but they’re hardly alone in that regard.

Senior Jafar Armstrong, a one-time three-star wide receiver prospect, remains the most feasible No. 1 running back option, despite a debilitating abdominal tear in the 2019 opener with Louisville that became an imposing mental block when Armstrong had returned to the field.

That’s reflected in a disappointing 2.7-yards-per-carry average on a team that averaged 4.9 last season.

Backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec, now at Boston College, amassed more rushing yards (156) than Armstrong (155) — in three fewer games and 22 fewer carries.

“He certainly looked the part before the injuries last year,” Rees said of the biggest Irish back, at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds.

“Jafar’s been a big part of our plans in the past. He’s going to continue to be a part of this offense. He’s learning to step into a really nice leadership role, which is good for him, as he goes into his later years in college.

“Jafar’s a kid I’m excited for. I know he loves the game of football and he loves to be out there. I’m excited for him to get going.”

In concocting a pecking order and assembling a rotation for 2020, it’s not just about who can roll up yardage against average opponents behind an offensive line that returns all five starters.

Playing big in big games matters.

In Notre Dame’s 33-6 run since coach Brian Kelly’s self-imposed reinvention after the 2016 season, a common thread in the six losses was a smothered rushing effort, making the Irish offense one-dimensional and, at times, non-dimensional.

In those six losses (Georgia, Miami and Stanford in 2017; Clemson in 2018; Georgia and Michigan in 2019) the ND running game averaged a collective 2.5 yards per carry. In the most recent four losses, that average drops to 2.0, with long runs of nine, nine, 11 and 8 yards.

Which again points to why Tyree can’t be an afterthought. And he’s not expecting to be.

“I don’t have any questions about it,” Tyree said when pressed in May about those who feel he might lack the size/endurance to make that kind of impact, at least early on.

“I know my ability and my ability to make plays. I’m going to compete no matter what it is I’m doing. So I’m not really worried about it.

“My focus as a freshman is just to contribute no matter what my role is and what I’m doing. They’re going to get the best out of me, no matter what it is.”

Notre Dame got unexpected boosts in its running game down the stretch from unexpected sources. Quarterback Ian Book nearly doubled his 2018 average per carry (4.9 from 2.9) and finished as ND’s second-leading rusher (546 yards, 4 TDs) behind departed senior Tony Jones Jr.

His 112 carries in 2019, almost double of what Rees the QB amassed in his ND playing career (58), might be a bit on the high side for 2020, given the injury risk played against the perceived proficiency chasm between Book and backups Brendon Clark and Drew Pyne.

Wide receiver Braden Lenzy managed to finish 2019 as ND’s third-leading rusher (200 yards), despite getting just 13 carries on the season and receiving multiple carries in a game just twice.

Among ND’s remaining alternatives, junior C’Bo Flemister was surging pre-pandemic, but fellow junior Jahmir Smith and redshirt freshman Kyren Williams present intriguing cases for different reasons.

Smith brings power when healthy, Williams potentially elite receiving skills for a running back.

“All of them present a different skill set, a little bit, which is exciting because you can situationally put them where you need them,” Rees said. “It’s just a matter of getting those guys reps and putting them in positions to be successful.

“Establishing the line of scrimmage is important. If you look at our bowl game, we ran it pretty well, which is something that we wanted to emphasize then. We’ll continue to emphasize it. You need to have a great balance.”

Notre Dame running back Jafar Armstrong, here in action against Navy in November, struggled to find his rhythm after returning last October from an abdominal injury.

8 Jafar Armstrong 6-1 220 Sr.
20 C'Bo Flemister 5-11 195 Jr.
21 Trevor Speights 5-11 203 Gr.
25 Chris Tyree 5-10 190 Fr.
34 Jahmir Smith 5-11 207 Jr.
23 Kyren Williams 5-9 204 So.