Inside Kyren Williams' journey to the top of the Notre Dame running back depth chart

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Left alone to stew in the darkness of his abrupt free fall into an afterthought last fall, Kyren Williams doubled down on who he believed he could be in a Notre Dame uniform someday.

In the weeks and months that followed, the now-Notre Dame sophomore running back even managed to exceed his own lofty expectations. On Tuesday during a Zoom conference call with the media, Irish head coach Brian Kelly let the college football world know just how much Williams had exceeded them.

“Kyren Williams has really emerged as somebody we feel right now has gained an advantage as the top back right now,” Kelly said of a player who had all of five touches as a freshman in 2019 and none after game 2 of that season.

“He’s going to require, obviously, some assistance at that position from a number of other guys. We’re not just going to feature one back. But Kyren’s done a great job.”

Eleven days before Notre Dame’s Sept. 12 season opener with Duke (2:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV), Kelly finally delivered his first seismic news of training camp that didn’t involve an injury or navigating practicing and playing through a pandemic.

Suddenly, the position group on offense that had the most to prove going into the offseason had an intriguing, fresh look to it.

Freshman Chris Tyree has continued to impress with a mix of toughness and elite speed and appears to have pushed his way into the rotation as well.

“Chris Tyree is electric,” Kelly said.

Junior C’Bo Flemister (162 yards on 48 carries in 2019) also has surged recently, per Kelly, mirroring a rise in trust from the coaching staff he earned toward the end of last season.

The Irish even added two new options — 6-foot-1, 236-pound converted linebacker Osita Okwanu, now decidedly the biggest of the seven running backs; and converted wide receiver Kendall Abdur-Rahman, a 6-foot, 195-pound sophomore who was a prolific running quarterback Edwardsville (Ill.) High School 1,135 rushing yards and 19 rushing TDs his senior season).

Of the seven, two with some work to do to expand their roles, ironically, are ND’s leading returning rusher among running backs, junior Jahmir Smith (180 yards yards on 42 carries), and oft-hobbled senior Jafar Armstrong (122 yards on 46 carries), the latter of whom started last season as ND’s No. 1 back and figured to do so again this season.

Until Williams simply overwhelmed.

“It’s not a surprise to me,” said Jerry Stanfield, who trained Williams in the St. Louis area in the spring after COVID-19 shuttered Notre Dame’s spring practices after one session (March 5) and shut down in-person classes at ND later that month for the balance of the spring semester.

“Kyren has really worked his butt off. He’s actually transformed his body by changing his diet and workouts.”

Stanfield, who owns Excel360 Football Academy in suburban St. Louis, and Williams, who starred for Class 5 Missouri state champion St. John Vianney High in 2018, are hardly strangers.

Stanfield was Williams’ position coach at Vianney for all four of his years there and has since moved onto De Smet High, alma mater of Irish freshman wide receiver Jordan Johnson.

He was also on the other end of the phone when Williams recounted a dropped pass in ND’s 2019 season opener at Louisville that seemed to change the whole trajectory of his freshman season.

Williams got garbage-time carries the next week against overmatched New Mexico (4 for 26 yards) and his only pass reception of the season (for three yards), but the next two games he played without recording any stats. And in the final nine games he didn’t play at all.

“Kyren’s a realist,” Stanfield said. “I think like any other freshman, you get in a big game like that (Louisville) and you get that opportunity, nerves are going to set in. And I think that probably is what ended up happening.

“But I also think he learned from it. He understood the decisions that coaches make, and I think it made him even more determined to prove to the coaches that he was the guy who they recruited.”

With Williams’ fade and Armstrong never returning to form even when he returned to the lineup after tearing an abdominal muscle and missing four games, since-graduated Tony Jones Jr. became ND’s No. 1 back in 2019 (857 yards on 144 carries and 6 TDs).

And even though the Irish finished with a respectable 4.9 yards-per-carry average as a team, they needed to be creative in arriving there. Quarterback Ian Book was perhaps ND’s most consistent runner in the second half of the season and wide receiver Braden Lenzy provided some big plays in the run game,

Both had more rushing yards in 2019 than any of the backs other than Jones. And even backup QB Phil Jurkovec, now at Boston College after an offseason transfer, had more rushing yards than Armstrong — in fewer carries and games played.

More pertinently, in ND’s two losses last season — at Georgia and at Michigan — the Irish averaged a collective 2.1 yards per carry and only amassed 93 rushing yards in those games combined.

Williams gives Notre Dame a better version of himself than the Irish saw at any time from him as an early enrollee, and an impressive one at that in the time leading up to the 2019 season.

He had bulked up to 204 pounds after his senior season in high school, figuring he’d need the extra bulk to absorb the punishing blows from college defenders, and was pushing 210 on his 5-9 frame when he first met up with Stanfield in the spring.

“He’s in the 193-195 range now,” Stanfield said. “But the biggest difference in who he was and who he is now is speed. Straight-line speed. He always had the agility to make people miss, but now he can run away from them, too.”

And he got there by not running away from the reasons for his 2019 free fall on the depth chart.

“That was important how he processed it, because what he did was let that make him more determined than ever to be great,” Stanfield said. “You’re going to see some great things out of this kid. This is a kid who has some unbelievable and tremendous ability.

“But more than anything Kyren Williams is a fighter. Whatever happens, he’s going to give everything he’s got.”

Chris Tyree (25) and Kyren Williams (23), Notre Dame’s 1-2 rushing punch, run a practice drill.