NFL Draft: Notre Dame's Kyren Williams and the lost art of the well-placed stiff arm

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams (23) pushes off North Carolina's Tomon Fox (12) before setting off on a long touchdown run during the Notre Dame 44-34 win over North Carolina in an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Sometime this weekend, possibly as soon as Friday’s second or third round of the NFL Draft, Kyren Williams’ next team will pull his card. 

And when that happens, one of the finest modern practitioners of the lost art of the stiff arm will have a new laboratory. 

Larry Williams made sure his son knew how to deliver a proper stiff arm well before he arrived at Notre Dame. 

“When I got the stiff arm, it was in Little League,” Williams said recently. “My dad taught me early on, and I just kept getting better at it.”

On his way to the only back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons of the Brian Kelly era, Williams used keen vision, sneaky burst and powerful legs that always kept churning through contact. He also displayed an uncanny knack for shedding would-be tacklers as they approached with a quick smack of his off hand. 

The image of helpless defenders sliding to the turf in the wake of a Williams stiff arm is burned into the collective memory of Notre Dame observers. His personal history with the maneuver goes back much longer. 

“I was doing it to every person in Little League,” Williams said as he recalled his St. Louis youth. “I remember there was one time I stiff-armed somebody and I literally lifted him off the ground.” 

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As Williams moved on to St. John Vianney, where he also played linebacker and wide receiver, his physicality and fearlessness served him well. So did his high level of efficiency with the stiff arm. 

“It’s really a timing thing,” he said. “You don’t want to go too early because if you go too early, then they’ll swat your hand down. They’ll make you mess up.” 

Some level of deception seems to be involved. As in many other realms, the stiff arm works best when its victim never sees it coming. 

Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams (23) and Georgia Tech's Tariq Carpenter (2) exchange uncalled face masks during the Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

“It’s just a feeling for me,” Williams said. “You want to go when they don’t expect it. When you get the right time and you see they’re about to (pounce) and you just get them off you, that’s the best part.” 

'They watch film. They know' 

When Oklahoma unveiled a statue of 2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield last weekend, it didn’t depict the quarterback planting the school’s flag at midfield after a famed road upset of Ohio State.

It showed Mayfield delivering a Heisman-worthy stiff arm. 

“We decided on the stiff arm of little brother,” he said. “That’s there forever.” 

Williams might never get a statue of his own, but he recognizes the connection between him and one of the heaviest hammers in his toolbox. 

“I haven’t talked about it with (NFL) teams, but they see it,” Williams said. “They watch film. They know.”

Deland McCullough, hired away from Indiana this offseason to coach Notre Dame running backs, expressed admiration for Williams’ gift even while admitting the difficulty of passing it down. 

“Some of that is just you either have it or you don’t,” McCullough said. “The guy had a good angle for how he shot his hand out there on guys.” 

Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams (23) stiff arms Georgia Tech's Myles Sims (16) during the Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

McCullough’s impressive resume includes three years in Kansas City, where he helped the Chiefs reach three straight AFC Championship games and two Super Bowls from 2018-20. For all of his many teaching aids in the area of ball security, footwork and the like, McCullough never has figured out a way to make the stiff arm take for a back without that weapon already. 

“In my history, I never did something specific for (the) stiff arm,” McCullough said. “It’s just an instinctive thing, just kind of part of their deal. And I had some really good backs.”

He mentioned Tevin Coleman’s 2,036-yard rushing season for the Hoosiers in 2014. Coleman, now with the New York Jets, didn’t need the stiff arm on his way to a seventh-place finish in Heisman Trophy voting. 

“That guy had over 2,000 yards,” McCullough said, “and I could count on one hand how many times he stiff-armed somebody.” 

Lance Taylor, now the offensive coordinator at Louisville after coaching Notre Dame running backs the past three seasons, did emphasize the stiff arm. 

“Coach Taylor really worked on it a lot,” said junior running back Chris Tyree. “You have to be able to time it the right way. That was really the biggest thing that we talked about.”

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With Williams moving on, it’s up to Tyree to bridge the gap and pass on any stiff-arm secrets that may apply to younger backs such as Audric Estime, Jadarian Price and Logan Diggs. 

“With (Williams) being out there and finding a rhythm and having so much confidence, it’s pretty easy to do when you’re on the field,” Tyree said. “It’s really a feel thing. That’s what I would say about it. You have to have a good feel for where you are, where the defense is and just go from there. Play ball.” 

'He's a baller' 

Once Williams finds out where his pro career begins, he’s ready to throw a figurative stiff arm into the face of his many doubters spread around the NFL. 

His production, versatility, hands and blitz pickup will never be in question, but at 5-foot-9 and 194 pounds he’s had to answer plenty of questions about his lack of blazing speed (4.65 40 time at the combine) and other modest measurables. 

Father Larry (middle) and younger sister Grace (right) pose for a picture with Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams (left).

His former Notre Dame teammates aren’t concerned about that. 

“He’s a baller and he’s a dog when it comes to football,” said wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr., who also could climb into the second day of the draft. “ All the numbers and stuff don’t really matter. He’s a football player. That’s what he does the best.” 

Naturally outgoing and equipped with a disarming sense of humor, Williams has enjoyed the interview process with NFL people. 

“They really were just trying to find out who I was as a person,” he said. “They heard about me at Notre Dame. They heard what I do, what I can do, how I lead. They just really wanted to confirm that, I guess. Try to see who I am, how I was raised.” 

Scouts and other front-office talent evaluators would ask Williams about his choice of Catholic high school and college programs. They also were curious about why he had to use a redshirt season in 2019 after struggling in his college debut on a noisy night at Louisville. 

“It was nothing like any of those weird questions or crazy questions that you hear about online or anything like that,” Williams said. “Actually, somebody told me that since I redshirted and Chris Tyree came in his freshman year and played that he was better than me. They were trying to get under my skin.”

Kyren Williams runs the 40-yard-dash during Notre Dame’s NFL Pro Day event on Friday, March 25, 2022, in South Bend.

Williams wasn’t taking the bait. 

“I just told them, ‘Chris is good. You’re not wrong,’ “ Williams said. “He had the skills to come in and play his freshman year that I wasn’t able to have. I was kind of shrugging when he said that, but I was like, ‘OK. I’ll tell you the real answer.’ “ 

Williams has brought that same bluntness when asked his reasoning for turning pro at this stage of his development. 

Even after 514 all-purpose touches in his two-plus college seasons, including some kickoff and punt return work, Williams has remained remarkably healthy. Opting out of the Fiesta Bowl and leaving another three years of eligibility on the table — including a 2020 Covid year re-do — was a more obvious decision when viewed in that context. 

“That’s part of the reason why I left,” Williams said. “It makes sense. Not too many reps on my body, all of that. Makes sense.”

As he interviews with various NFL teams, Williams said he doesn’t necessarily get credit for that clean medical sheet. 

“I feel like they dislike it more if you have an injury,” he said. “They don’t like it if you have an injury, but if you don’t have an injury I don’t feel like it boosts you. You feel me? I don’t know if it does that. I just know it’s good if you don’t have it.”

Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams (23) blocks Navy's Michael McMorris (5) as he runs into the end zone during the Notre Dame vs. Navy NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Williams, who won’t turn 22 until Aug. 26, brushes aside any suggestion that every running back has a finite number of carries in his career. 

“I don’t want to limit anything,” he said. 

Maybe he’ll be the raexception and play until age 40? 

“I want to be the one that does that,” he said, breaking into a smile. “Literally. Exactly that.”

Staff writer Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for the South Bend Tribune and NDInsider.com. Email him at mberardino@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.