Notebook: Don't forget the importance of Notre Dame's running game for the 2021 season

Tyler James
ND Insider
Running back Kyren Williams and the Irish running game will have a big impact on Notre Dame's offensive success this season.

SOUTH BEND — The countless questions about Notre Dame’s quarterbacks and wide receivers fielded by head coach Brian Kelly throughout the preseason has allowed the Irish rushing attack to become a bit of an afterthought in practice coverage over the past few weeks. 

That’s not a reflection of the running game’s importance to Notre Dame’s offense in the 2021 season. The Irish backfield is too dynamic to not become a critical factor in the success of the Irish offense. 

The matchup against Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla., on Sunday (7:30 p.m. EDT on ABC) should provide a good reminder on the importance of Notre Dame’s ground game. In last season’s 42-26 home victory over Florida State, Notre Dame rushed for 353 yards and four touchdowns. 

But an offensive line with four new starters will be tasked with making room for returning running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree this Sunday. 

“We're getting much more comfortable with the personnel up front on the offensive line,” Kelly said. “We lost some really good players, but we're getting to the point where we're feeling more comfortable with how that group is working together. We've been very careful not to do too much, but yet have a great library of answers to what defenses may do. That efficiency, in terms of selection of plays, has been repped and repped and repped.” 

Even though Williams, a junior, and Tyree, a sophomore, only have one year of college game experience each, they are well-versed in what Notre Dame’s offense was and what it can become. 

"The running game can be different,” Kelly said, “and it can be extremely effective and efficient.” 

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In averaging 211.1 rushing yards per game, Notre Dame’s rushing offense was ranked No. 24 in the FBS last season. Sunday’s game should provide the first evidence of whether Notre Dame’s running game can be as effective in 2021. But the quality of Florida State’s rushing defense, which finished 97th last season, might skew the perspective after one game. 

Whether Notre Dame’s offense becomes defined by a successful rushing attack isn’t as important to Kelly as the offense’s ability to score points. 

"Everybody kind of looks at the running game as part of your success,” Kelly said. “We're going to have to run the football, there's no doubt.  

“Balance to me has always been about if you're in a position to run it, you better be good at it. But ‘defined’ to me is about scoring points, and scoring more is going to be having an effective and efficient running game.” 

Ankle injury ends Liufau’s season 

The injury Marist Liufau suffered in last Wednesday's practice has been deemed season ending. 

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Liufau, Notre Dame's projected starter at Will linebacker, had surgery Monday morning for a break and dislocation in his right ankle. 

"It was a fairly significant injury," Kelly said. "His spirits are great. Our medical team feels great about the recovery and his ability to come back here and be 100%." 

The 6-foot-2, 229-pound junior was set to become a key piece in Notre Dame’s defense this season. Liufau showed throughout preseason practice he was ready to take on a bigger role than he played in 2020. Last season, Liufau played in 10 games, started three of them and totaled 22 tackles.  

In Liufau’s absence, junior JD Bertrand will be asked to make his first career start. The 6-1, 230-pound Bertrand beat out senior Shayne Simon, who started eight games last season and will still be expected to contribute in a rotation. 

“Outstanding production, tough, smart, assignment-correct, athletic,” Kelly said of Bertrand. “He has all the tools to play at a high level at that position. So we lose a very versatile player in Marist. There's no doubt about it. But JD Bertrand is an outstanding football player as well. So, next man up in that situation, and we'll get a chance to see him play against Florida State." 

Notre Dame linebacker JD Bertrand will step into the starting lineup following Marist Liufau's season-ending ankle injury

Clarity on Kelly’s head coach comment about Marcus Freeman 

No, Brian Kelly did not indicate that defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman would become the next head coach at Notre Dame. 

A quote Kelly made at the American Century Championship, a celebrity golf tournament in South Lake Tahoe, Nev., in July gained over-analyzed and under-contextualized traction last week. Kelly was part of a roundtable discussion for “Race and Sports in America: Conversations” on NBC Sports platforms. 

Kelly said the words, “My defensive coordinator is Black, and he’s going to be the next head coach,” but he didn’t mean specifically at Notre Dame as Kelly’s replacement. 

“We were talking about giving qualified people, in particular African American and Black leaders, the opportunity to lead,” Kelly said Monday. “I've done that in my football program with director of operations (Olivia Mitchell), I alluded to that.  

“Then we were talking about coaches, and I said the next head coach will be Marcus Freeman. That got taken as the next head coach at Notre Dame. But that was never part of the equation. I was talking about him being the next Black head coach, in terms of that he will be the next head coach that is Black in the country.  

“But it's just one of those things, you're on a golf course, and you're talking about race in America and everybody else thought I was talking about Notre Dame football. So, it is what it is. I don't know if I clarified it any, because it's still going to be taken as, 'Oh, he must have been thinking that he's the next head coach.'  

“But if you think about it, why would somebody ask me, 'Hey, who's going to be the next head coach?' I'd be pretty offended." 

Extra points 

• The war chant that echoes throughout Florida State’s Doak Campbell Stadium has been a regular part of Notre Dame’s recent practices. Kelly has tried to give his players an understanding of what the atmosphere will be in Tallahassee on Sunday night. 

“We spent a few team meetings already on loud videos and showing them the entrance and the tight locker room, and how difficult it is in that environment, so they can prepare themselves to put themselves there,” Kelly said. “Look, the No. 1 thing to peak performance is distractions, so getting those distractions out of the way so they can meet their peak performance.” 

• Former Notre Dame offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons, who completed a grad transfer to Florida State following spring practice this year, was named the starting left guard for the Seminoles. Kelly isn’t bothered by playing against a former player in the season opener. 

"We've had that before,” Kelly said. “We wish Dillan the best. He was a hard-working guy for us. But once they kick it off, it's all about Notre Dame.” 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.