From weakness to strength, Notre Dame's running back group now features quality depth

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

To essentially flip the running back depth chart meant the Notre Dame coaching staff trusted three players with no or limited experience going into a season with lofty expectations.

Junior C’Bo Flemister, sophomore Kyren Williams and true freshman Chris Tyree had combined for 188 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 52 carries prior to this season. Flemister and Williams rarely received high-leverage opportunities.

“Nobody knew about any of the running backs (before this season),” said ND head coach Brian Kelly.

Now those three are considered a key to the No. 4 Irish (6-0, 5-0 ACC) potentially downing top-ranked Clemson (7-0, 6-0) at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday (7:30 p.m. EST on NBC).

Flemister, Williams and Tyree each bring varying skill sets to an offense that ranks No. 11 nationally in rushing yards per game (231).

“It’s like that hammer and nail,” Williams said. “C’Bo is going to come downhill. He’s going to hit you. He’s going to get those yards we need. We are going to get those bully yards. With Chris, you’ve got that speed. And he will come down and hit you, too. And then with me, I will be able to make you miss, I will be able to run you over, all of that.

“I just feel like there is no drop-off at running back. We can throw anybody in, and we can just keep moving as an offense and just keep going.”

Last season, the Irish featured Tony Jones Jr., Jahmir Smith and Jafar Armstrong as the primary running backs. Jones departed a year early for the NFL Draft. Smith left the team last month, citing mental health reasons. Armstrong battled multiple injuries and never established himself as the No. 1 running back the coaching staff expected him to be.

Turning to Williams and Flemister speaks to how the players overcame what had them buried in the depth chart. Tyree also disproved recruiting analysts who held doubts about him being an impact player in year one.

Moving Armstrong to wide receiver last week showed how much Kelly and run game coordinator Lance Taylor believe in their top three running backs.

With his bruising style, Flemister is a staple in short-yardage situations. The 5-foot-11, 201-pound Flemister has turned 42 carries into 239 yards and four touchdowns. His skills were useful when the Irish needed a running back who could push for extra yards against Pittsburgh’s top-ranked run defense. He tallied 48 rushing yards and a score in 13 attempts in the 45-3 win.

Flemister secured his role after improving his attitude, attention to detail and overall traits on a day-to-day basis, Kelly said.

“I just think he’s a hard runner. He’s difficult to tackle,” Kelly said earlier this season. “He plays with very, very low pads. I would say that his yards after first contact are as good as anybody that we have. Kyren is pretty good too obviously, but he’s (Flemister) a guy who you’ve got to wrap up. He’s got that high knee kick and low pads and very difficult to tackle. I know our guys do not like to tackle him. He’s very difficult to wrap up.”

Shedding approximately 15 pounds this offseason transformed the 5-9, 195-pound Williams. He leads the Irish with 780 all-purpose yards and seven touchdowns on 117 touches.

Williams dropped most of that weight during the three months he stayed at his childhood home in the St. Louis area. He changed his diet, eating lean proteins, fish, vegetables and rice while drinking two gallons of water per day and cutting out bad carbs and sugars. His mother, Taryn, often cooked for him three times per day.

Then Williams trained with Jerry Stanfield, his former running backs coach at St. John Vianney High. Stanfield said Williams improved his straight-line speed. He juxtaposed that focus with learning how to be more patient.

“That was a big emphasis for me,” said Williams about improving his patience. “Just watching film from (New York Jets RB) Le’Veon Bell and other running backs that I look up to. Patience is one of the biggest things I try to take into this coming year. I’m always telling myself to be patient. Even if I’m being too fast, I’ve got to slow it down.

“Even being able to tiptoe behind the line and having that, that’s a big key for us as running backs so that we can stay patient and hit those holes when they are ready to be hit.”

Durability was a concern for Tyree during the recruiting process, especially after he suffered a couple injuries last year. At 5-10, 188 pounds, could Tyree withstand repeated hits from runs between the offensive tackles? Could Tyree assume a significant workload as a true freshman for an entire season? Those were the questions that were among reasons why he did not finish as a five-star recruit in the 2020 class.

Tyree’s impressive speed and playmaking ability have been noticeable through six games. He ranks second on the team with 277 rushing yards on just 40 rushes. He also has two rushing touchdowns.

But in the last two games, Tyree has seen a decrease in volume. He went from 34 touches in the first four games to eight carries and no catches against Pitt and Georgia Tech combined. Kelly expressed confidence last week about Tyree accruing more touches as the season progresses.

“His numbers in terms of physical numbers, in terms of volume, load, in the weight room, GPS numbers, don’t point toward a freshman,” Kelly said. “They point toward somebody who has a much higher level of conditioning and work volume. So it’s not surprising that he’s handled it quite well.

“These were important questions for us as we were going into camp. How do we sit? Do we really have a true freshman who is going to hit the wall five or six games into it? Or do we have a guy who we really believe is going to be here the whole year?

“We were feeling confident that this was a guy who was going to get better as the season went. We are, in a practice sense, seeing that.”

The Irish have found a potent rushing attack that offers explosiveness and variance. Whether they continue that success against improved competition like the Tigers will be a storyline to follow. In its two losses last season at Georgia and at Michigan, Notre Dame combined for only 93 rushing yards and averaged 2.1 yards per carry.

Williams, Flemister and Tyree seemed to overcome the challenges that were holding them back. Now it’s time for them to collectively shine against a defense that comes in at No. 15 against the run (99.9 rushing yards allowed per game).

“We come to Notre Dame to play top games like this, to play Clemson, to play the best teams in the nation,” Williams said. “We knew that coming in. We knew that coming into the beginning of the season: that we are going to see Clemson.

“If we keep going, doing what we’re doing and keep playing as an offense, as a team, as a defense, as a whole together this weekend so we can just advance this weekend 1-0 and just keep on moving to next week.”

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams (23) makes a cut against Pittsburgh on Oct. 24 in Pittsburgh.
Notre Dame running back C’Bo Flemister (20) grinds out yards against Pittsburgh Oct. 24 in Pittsburgh.

No. 4 NOTRE DAME (6-0) vs. No. 1 CLEMSON (7-0)

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EST

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

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

Line: Clemson by 5 1/2